San Francisco changes course, bans police use of 'killer robots' amid public outrage




  • In Business
  • 2022-12-08 18:24:20Z
  • By USA TODAY

San Francisco officials voted unanimously Tuesday against a controversial policy that would have let police use robots for deadly force, reversing course days after initial approval of the policy sparked public outcry.

The policy: The legislation would have allowed police to use remote-controlled robots for deadly force "when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available," according to the draft policy.

A reversal: Tuesday's vote came a week after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had voted 8-3 to approve the policy, moving to give city police the option to use the robots for deadly force in emergencies.

Before the vote last week, supervisors amended the proposal to specify that officers could use the robots only after trying alternative force or de-escalation tactics, and that only a limited number of high-ranking officers could authorize their use.

LAST WEEK'S VOTE: San Francisco will allow police to deploy robots that kill 'in extreme circumstances'

Why would police use killer robots?

Robots would allow police to scope out potentially dangerous scenes while officers stay back, police officials said.

The San Francisco Police Department has said it had no plans to arm the robots with guns and only wanted to be able to place explosives on them so they could be used "to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspects" when lives are at stake, police spokesperson Allison Maxie said in a statement.

In a Wednesday statement to USA TODAY, SFPD Chief William Scott said the debate over the robots "has been become distorted, and the narrative being driven is a distraction from the real issue, which is having the tools necessary to prevent loss of innocent lives in an active shooter or mass casualty incident."

"We want to use our robots to save lives - not take them," Scott said. "To be sure, this is about neutralizing a threat by equipping a robot with a lethal option as a last case scenario, not sending an officer in on a suicide mission."

Opinion: USA TODAY columnist singlehandedly defeats San Francisco's killer robots. Thank me later.

A woman holds a sign while taking part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall on Dec.
A woman holds a sign while taking part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall on Dec.  

'Killer robots' spark outcry

The board's initial vote in favor of the policy sparked public outcry, including from civil liberties and other police groups that raised alarm bells over the further militarization of the police and potential disproportionate harm to communities of color and other marginalized communities.

Dozens of protesters opposing the policy gathered outside City Hall last week, chanting and holding signs with phrases such as "We all saw that movie ... No Killer Robots." Among them was Supervisor Dean Preston.

"The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city," Preston said in a statement. "We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people."

In a Twitter statement, Supervisor Hillary Ronen said "common sense prevailed."

Vote comes after new state law

The vote resulted from a new state law requiring police and sheriff's departments to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for their use. The law aims at giving the public a voice in the use of military-grade weapons in their communities.

San Francisco police have a dozen functioning ground robots that were acquired from 2010 to 2017, according to police officials.

What's next?

San Francisco's charter requires the Board of Supervisors to vote on the same legislation twice, so the policy will return for another vote next week.

Mayor London Breed would then have to sign off on the measure within 10 days.

However, while the board voted unanimously to ban the use of robots for deadly force for now, it sent the measure to a committee for further discussion and could reevaluate the policy.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: San Francisco rejects use of police killer robots after public outrage

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