Following an emotionally charged debate, supervisors in San Francisco voted Tuesday to give city police the ability to use potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations. The vote reflected divisions on the politically liberal board over support for law enforcement.
Although civil liberties and police oversight groups strongly objected, the vote was 8-3 in favor of granting police the option. Those against the change said that it would result in an militaristic police force that is often too aggressive with poorer and minority communities.
Supervisor Connie Chan, who forwarded the proposal to the full board, said that though she understood people’s concerns about law enforcement using force, state law requires the Board of Supervisors to approve this type of Equipment. “It’s definitely not an easy discussion,” she said.
The San Francisco Police Department stated that it neither has nor plans to arm its robots with guns. “We could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, and dangerous suspects when lives are at stake,” SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie said in a statement.
“Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” she said.
On Tuesday, supervisors amended the proposal to include that officers could only use robots after trying alternative force or de-escalation tactics first, or if they determined that they would not be able to subdue the suspect through those means. Use of robots as a deadly force option could only be authorized by high-ranking officers.
The San Francisco police department has a dozen ground robots that are currently functional. These robots help assess bombs and provide eyesight in low visibility situations, according to the department. police officials said that none of the explosives acquired by the suspects between 2010 and 2017 have been used to deliver an explosive device.
Approval from law enforcement is now necessary after a recent California law went into effect, which requires cataloging and justification of use for all military-grade equipment.
The state law, authored last year by San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu while he was an assembly member, is aimed at giving the public a forum and voice in the acquisition and use of military-grade weapons that have a negative effect on communities. A government-sponsored program has, for years now, provided grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, bayonets, armored vehicles and other military surplus equipment to local law enforcement in an effort to help them.
In 2017, President Donald Trump revived the Pentagon program that had been curtailed two years earlier by former President Barack Obama. The reasons for curtailment included public outcry over the use of military gear during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which were sparked by the death of Michael Brown. Late Tuesday, the San Francisco police department stated that none of their robots were military surplus, but some had been acquired through federal grant money.
Many places in the U.S., including San Francisco, are struggling to find a balance between public safety and cherished civilian rights such as privacy and the freedom from excessive police surveillance. Last month, supervisors approved a test run that would enable officers to see what private surveillance cameras are recording in real time under specific conditions.
On Tuesday, the debate ran for more than two hours. Members on both sides accused the other of using fear to manipulate people.
Rafael Mandelman, a supervisor who voted in favor of authorizing the policy, said he was troubled by rhetoric that paints the police department as untrustworthy and dangerous.
“I think there’s larger questions raised when progressives and progressive policies start looking to the public like they are anti-police,” he said. “I think that is bad for progressives. I think it’s bad for this Board of Supervisors. I think it’s bad for Democrats nationally.”
Board President Shamann Walton, who voted against the proposal, pushed back by saying that it made him “pro people of color” instead of anti-police.
“We continuously are being asked to do things in the name of increasing weaponry and opportunities for negative interaction between the police department and people of color,” he said. “This is just one of those things.”
On Monday, the San Francisco Public Defender’s office sent a letter to the board expressing their concern that granting police “the ability to kill community members remotely” is against the city’s progressive values. The office suggested that the board reinstate a ban on police using robots in acts of force against people.
The Oakland Police Department has rejected a similar program after receiving public backlash.
In 2016, for the first time in the U.S., a robot was used to deliver explosives when Dallas police sent in an armed robot that killed a holed-up sniper who had killed five officers in an ambush.