San Francisco supervisors approve SFPD plan to give robots 'deadly-force option'

San Francisco police got approval from the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to use existing robots as a potential "deadly force option." The board signed off on the policy 8 to 3 with amendments. 

That means military-grade machines, operated by trained officers, could potentially kill suspects during critical incidents. SFPD must evaluate the situation and try alternatives. 

"A lot of talk of ‘Robocop,’ which I think sets a lot of minds going to a whole lot of places, but this is not that," said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who supports using robots for specific life-threatening cases. "I think it's totally appropriate. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible not to make plans to use that technology in that horrific eventuality," Mandelman said.

But Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation disagreed, saying, "It's really just opening a window that eventually somebody's gonna wanna crawl through."

Guariglia said it doesn't make sense to give robots the ability to kill.

"We are going to lessen the burden of using deadly force from having to pull a gun and pull the trigger to a button on a remote control," Guariglia said.

San Francisco police already have 17 robots, and none of them has live ammunition. But the department is considering using a robot with explosives attached, as a way to get into a building with violent, armed suspects barricaded inside. 

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In a statement, the department said in part, "While an explosive charge may be considered an intermediate force option, it could potentially cause injury or be lethal. Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives."

Supervisor Hillary Ronen wrote on Twitter: "Beyond disappointed that the Board seems poised to allow SFPD to use weaponized robots to use force against human beings. Only 4 of us clearly against. Shortsighted, dangerous, sad. The spirit of the SF I have always admired is weeping today." 

She later corrected herself in a follow-up tweet to say, "Even worse than I thought! Only three of us - myself, Shamann Walton and Dean Preston voted against arming robots with weapons to kill. A damn shame." 

During the debate, Walton, the Board of Supervisors president, pushed back, saying it made him not anti-police, but "pro people of color." 

"We continuously are being asked to do things in the name of increasing weaponry and opportunities for negative interaction between the police department and people of color," he said. "This is just one of those things." 

Sup. Mandelman defended his vote in a Twitter thread and offered more details of what supervisors had approved. "This includes seven robots designed to neutralize/dispose of bombs, and provide video reconnaissance for operators." He added, "None of the robots have firearms attached, and SFPD has no plans to attach firearms." Mandelman explained the robots have been used by the police department since 2010, but have never used lethal force. 

In a statement late Tuesday night, District 5 Sup. Dean Preston condemned the board's approval of the plan as "deeply disturbing," further calling it "SFPD's dystopian military equipment policy." Preston called the vote a "sad moment for our City, and one which shows how far the City has strayed from the reckoning on police violence in 2020." In agreement with the board president, he claimed approval of this policy would place Black and brown people in disproportionate danger of harm or death and that the policy is based on hypotheticals where no evidence of its need was presented. 

Before Preston had issued his statement, San Francisco Police Officers Association criticized him on social media and said he was trying to "whip up panic." 

The San Francisco Public Defender's office sent a letter Monday to the board saying that granting police "the ability to kill community members remotely" goes against the city's progressive values. The office wanted the board to reinstate language barring police from using robots against any person in an act of force. 

The discussion in San Francisco comes just a month after the Oakland Police Commission explored a policy that would have allowed Oakland police to use robots with shotguns. That policy idea was dropped by the police department without the commission voting on it.

In Dallas, a robot armed with explosives was used by police to kill a man suspected of shooting and killing five police officers in 2016. This was the first instance of police using a robot to deliver explosives in the U.S. 

Associated Press contributed to this report.