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

A hot potato: The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) has drafted new regulations allowing it to deploy militarized robots to use lethal force on criminal suspects. The SFPD Board of Supervisors Rules Committee has approved the rules and is petitioning officials to adopt them into city ordinances.

The policy is within a broader set of regulations regarding the SFPD’s use of “military-style” weapons, including semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, and submachine guns. The new draft is in response to California passing AB 481, which requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to annually submit detailed reports regarding the use of their military arsenals, including robots.

The reports must include complete inventories of all weapons that are not “standard-issue service weapons.” Those lists would consist of everything other than sidearms and shotguns. Area news outlet Mission Local notes that SFPD officials have already tried to hide specific items from their reports.

“The draft policy faces criticism from advocates for its language on robot force, as well as for excluding hundreds of assault rifles from its inventory of military-style weapons and for not including personnel costs in the price of its weapons,” Mission Local reported.

The SFPD excluded its 608 semi-automatic rifles, 64 machine guns, and 15 submachine guns in the first draft. The Board of Supervisors called out the rules committee for the omission and sent the document back for revision. The current draft is still missing 375 semi-automatic rifles. The chief of police claims he deemed the weapons “standard issue.”

Opponents say this rationale is ludicrous.

“We don’t see regular officers walking around with assault rifles,” said Staff Attorney Allyssa Victory with the ACLU of Northern California. “Just writing a policy doesn’t make it so.”

Local civil rights attorney Tifanei Moyer agreed.

The law defines ‘military weapons,’ not the chief of police. San Francisco is not the only department to attempt to redefine ‘military weapons’ so as to justify hiding their use, costs, and upkeep from the public.

We are living in a dystopian future, where we debate whether the police may use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury, or judge. This is not normal. No legal professional or ordinary resident should carry on as if it is normal.

Board Supervisor Aaron Peskin initially tried to limit mechanical force, saying, “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person.” The board sent that version back to the SFPD. A resubmitted draft had his wording crossed out with bold red marker and replaced with:

Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD.

Typically police robots are used for dealing with bombs or surveilling certain situations from a safe location, such as when dealing with a sniper. The first time police used a robot to kill a suspect in the US was in Dallas when authorities strapped an explosive to the machine, piloted it to within range of a sharpshooter, and detonated it.

The remote-controlled robots can also be equipped with a PAN disruptor. This device is a shotgun loaded with a water-filled shell fired into an explosive for a controlled detonation. However, a PAN unit can use live rounds just as readily. The SFPD reportedly has “several PAN disruptors.”

While keeping citizens and officers safe should always be at the forefront of department regulations. Using non-living robots in dangerous situations seems like a smart move. However, the policy overlooks or glosses over the extremely diminished situational awareness of a live officer the scene.

Even with an officer at the robot’s controls, he will not have the same perception as if he were in the situation, which could lead to things going very wrong. An example would be when the robot enters a building during a standoff and unloads or explodes, killing an unseen bystander in hiding or in the periphery of the device’s camera.

Image credits: Israeli Military Robot by Levg, LA County Robot by Eric Polk

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