San Francisco police seek permission for its robots to use deadly force

The San Francisco Police Department is currently petitioning the city’s Board of Supervisors for permission to deploy robots to kill suspects that law enforcement deems a sufficient threat that the “risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.” The draft policy, which was written by the SFPD itself, also seeks to exclude “hundreds of assault rifles from its inventory of military-style weapons and for not include personnel costs in the price of its weapons,” according to a report from Mission Local.  

As Mission Local notes, this proposal has already seen significant opposition from both within and without the Board. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, initially pushed back against the use of force requirements, inserting “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person,” into the policy language. The SFPD removed that wording in a subsequent draft, which I as a lifelong San Francisco resident did not know was something that they could just do. The three-member Rules Committee, which Peskin chairs, then unanimously approved that draft and advanced it to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote on November 29th. Peskin excused his decision by claiming that “there could be scenarios where deployment of lethal force was the only option.”

The police force currently maintains a dozen fully-functional remote-controlled robots, which are typically used for area inspections and bomb disposal. However, as the Dallas PD showed in 2016, they make excellent bomb delivery platforms as well. Bomb disposal units are often equipped with blank shotgun shells used to forcibly disrupt an explosive device’s internal workings, though there is nothing stopping police from using live rounds if they needed, as Oakland police recently acknowledged to that city’s civilian oversight board. 

While San Francisco has never explicitly allowed for robots to take human lives, lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs), are increasingly common in modern warfare. Anti-personnel mines, one of the earliest iterations of automated weaponry, have been banned since 1997 (but tell that to the mines already in the ground) and fully automated defenses like shipboard Phalanx systems have been in use since the 1970s. Autonomous offensive systems, such as UAVs and combat drones, have been used for years but have always required a “human in the loop” to bear the responsibility of actually firing the weapons. Now, the SFPD — the same department that regularly costs the city six-figure settlements for its excessive use of force and actively opposes investigations into its affinity for baton-based beatings — wants to wield that same life-and-death power over San Francisco’s civilians.

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