Police in San Francisco will be allowed to use remote-controlled robots that can kill, despite strong opposition from civil liberties groups.
Opponents of the move say it will lead to the further militarization of an already overaggressive police force against poor and minority communities.
The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) said it does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm them with guns.
However, SFPD spokeswoman Allison Maxie said the department could deploy robots equipped with explosives to “engage, engage or disorient violent, armed or dangerous suspects” when their lives are at risk.
“Robots equipped in this way will only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent life,” she said.
Police forces currently have a dozen ground-based robots that assess bombs or provide reconnaissance in low-visibility environments.
However, explicit authorization to use robots as a force is required after a new California law went into effect this year requiring police and sheriff’s departments to take inventory of military-grade equipment and seek approval to use robots.
A federal program has long distributed grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, bayonets, armored vehicles and other surplus military gear to aid local law enforcement — a source of major controversy.
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During Tuesday’s debate, which lasted more than two hours, members of both sides accused the other of fear-mongering.
Board Chairman Sharman Walton, who voted against the proposal, said doing so made him not anti-police but “pro-people of color.”
“We’re constantly being asked to do things in the name of increasing weapons and opportunities for negative interactions between police departments and people of color,” he said. “This is just one of them.”
Granting police officers “the ability to remotely kill community members” goes against the city’s progressive values, the San Francisco public defender’s office wrote to its board of directors on Monday.
The office wants the board to reinstate language that prohibits police from using robots against anyone for acts of force.
Superintendent Raphael Mandelman, who voted for the policy, said he was disturbed by the rhetoric that portrayed the police department as untrustworthy and dangerous.
“I think when progressivism and progressive policies start being presented to the public as anti-police, it creates bigger problems,” he said.
On the other side of the San Francisco Bay, the Oakland Police Department dropped a similar proposal after public backlash.
Robots were first used to deliver explosives in the U.S. in 2016, when Dallas police dispatched an armed robot that killed a hiding sniper who killed five in an ambush officer.