In a closely awaited board vote on Tuesday, San Francisco’s staunchly Democratic city supervisors could give police the authority to use potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency scenarios.
Police oversight organizations are urging the 11-member San Francisco Board of Supervisors to oppose the proposal because they believe it would further militarize a police force that is already overly harsh toward poor and minority areas.
They claimed the conditions under which use would be permitted were too nebulous.
According to the San Francisco Police Department, there are no already armed robots, and there are no plans to arm robots with weapons.
However, when lives are at risk, the police may send out robots armed with explosive charges “to confront, incapacitate, or disorient belligerent, armed, or dangerous suspect,” according to SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie in a prepared statement.
According to her, robots outfitted in this way would only be employed in dire situations to save or stop the loss of further innocent lives.
The proposed regulation opens the possibility of arming the weapons by not specifying how they can and cannot be equipped.
Robots will only be employed as a lethal option when the risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs all other forms of force that the SFPD may employ, according to the policy.
The vote is by a recent state law in California that mandates that police and sheriff’s agencies inventory military-grade equipment and gets authorization before using it. According to the department, San Francisco police presently have twelve operational ground robots used to examine bombs or act as eyes in dimly light environments.
They were bought in the years 2010 through 2017.
David Chiu, the city attorney for San Francisco, wrote the state bill last year while serving in the assembly.
The Act aims to provide the public with a platform and a voice in purchasing and using military-grade weapons that hurt communities.
San Francisco police did not immediately answer an inquiry about how the robots were obtained, but a federal program has provided local law enforcement with armored vehicles, bayonets, camouflage outfits, grenade launchers, and other surplus military gear.
After Barack Obama scaled back the Pentagon program in 2015, in part due to criticism over the use of military equipment during riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of Michael Brown, then-President Donald Trump issued an order restarting it in 2017.
Like many other cities across the country, San Francisco is working to balance critical civil liberties like the right to privacy and the freedom from overbearing police surveillance.
Supervisors approved a trial run in September that would give police limited access to private security camera feeds in real-time.
Supervisors who dissented expressed shock that a community that valued activism, diversity, and privacy would even consider handing law enforcement such authority.
Giving police “the ability to kill community people remotely,” according to a letter the San Francisco Public Defender’s office addressed to the board on Monday, runs counter to San Francisco’s progressive ideals.
The public defender’s office requests that the board reinstate the clause that forbids the use of robots by law enforcement as a display of force against anyone.
After receiving criticism from the public, the Oakland Police Department across San Francisco Bay abandoned a similar plan.