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San Francisco’s Killer Police Robots Threaten The City’s Most Vulnerable

One effect of AB 481 is to add local oversight to hardware like the kind obtained through a US Department of Defense program that sends billions of dollars of military equipment such as armored vehicles and ammunition to local police departments. Equipment from the program was used against protesters in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

Earlier this year, San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin amended San Francisco’s draft policy for military-grade police equipment to explicitly forbid use of robots to deploy force against any person. But an amendment proposed by SFPD this month argued that police needed to be free to use robotic force, because its officers must be ready to respond to incidents in which multiple people were killed. “In some cases, deadly force against a threat is the only option to mitigate those mass casualties,” the amendment said.

Ahead of yesterday’s vote, Brian Cox, director of the Integrity Unit at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, called the change antithetical to the progressive values the city has long stood for and urged supervisors to reject SFPD’s proposal. “This is a false choice, predicated on fearmongering and a desire to write their own rules,” he said in a letter to the board of supervisors.

Cox said lethal robots on SF streets could cause great harm, worsened by “SFPD’s long history of using excessive force—particularly against people of color.” The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights have also voiced opposition to the policy.

The San Francisco Police Department has disclosed that it has 17 robots, though only 12 are operational. They include search-and-rescue robots designed for use after a natural disaster like an earthquake, but also models that can be equipped with a shotgun, explosives, or pepper spray emitter.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin referred to the potential for police use of explosives to go wrong during the debate ahead of yesterday’s vote. During a 1985 standoff in Philadelphia, police dropped explosives from a helicopter on a house, causing a fire that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes.

Peskin called that one of the most atrocious and illegal incidents in the history of US law enforcement but said that the fact nothing similar has ever occurred in San Francisco gave him a measure of comfort. He ultimately voted to allow SFPD to use deadly robots. But he added the restriction that only the chief of police, assistant chief of operations, or deputy chief of special operations could authorize use of deadly force with a robot, along with language that urges consideration of de-escalation.

Granting approval to killer robots is the latest twist in a series of laws on policing technology from the tech hub that is San Francisco. After passing a law rejecting police use of Tasers in 2018, and providing oversight of surveillance technology and barring use of face recognition in 2019, city leaders in September gave police access to private security camera footage.

Supervisor Dean Preston referred to San Francisco’s inconsistent record on police technology in his dissent yesterday. “If police shouldn’t be trusted with Tasers, they sure as hell shouldn’t be trusted with killer robots,” he said. “We have a police force, not an army.”

San Francisco’s new policy comes at a time police access to robots is expanding, and those robots are becoming more capable. Most existing police robots move slowly on caterpillar tracks, but police forces in New York and Germany are beginning to use legged robots like the nimble quadruped Spot Mini.

Axon, manufacturer of the Taser, has proposed adding the weapon to drones to stop mass shootings. And in China, researchers are working on quadrupeds that work in tandem with tiny drones to chase down suspects.

Boston Dynamics, a pioneer of legged robots, and five other robotics manufacturers published an open letter in October objecting to the weaponization of their robots. Signatories said they felt a renewed sense of urgency to state their position due to “a small number of people who have visibly publicized their makeshift efforts to weaponize commercially available robots.” But as robotics becomes more advanced and cheaper, there are plenty of competitors without such reservations. Ghost Robotics, a Pennsylvania company in pilot projects with the US military and Department of Homeland Security on the US-Mexico border, allows customers to mount guns on its legged robots.