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Legislators vote to let San Francisco police use robots to remotely kill suspects

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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

In a controversial move San Fransisco police can now use robots to remotely kill suspects in extreme situations.

 

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Even though the NYPD is using robot dogs to catch criminals, and many would argue that several years ago police in the US set a precedent when they used a robot to blow up a suspect the use of robots to kill criminals has never been officially approved or sanctioned. However, now a controversial policy that would allow police to deploy robots capable of using lethal force in extraordinary circumstances has now been passed in California.

 

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The vote came after heated debate on a policy that would allow officers to use ground-based robots to kill “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and officers cannot subdue the threat after using alternative force options or de-escalation tactics,” according to the ordinance text. The measure still requires a second vote next week and the mayor’s approval, the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s office told reporters.

“There could be an extraordinary circumstance where, in a virtually unimaginable emergency, they might want to deploy lethal force to render, in some horrific situation, somebody from being able to cause further harm,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said at the board meeting. But Supervisors Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton voted against the policy.

“There is serious potential for misuse and abuse of this military-grade technology, and zero showing of necessity,” Preston said at the meeting.

 

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Ultimately, the board adopted an amendment during the meeting requiring one of two high-ranking San Francisco Police Department leaders to authorize any use of a robot for lethal force.

Police spokesperson Robert Rueca told the Washington Post the department has a fleet of robots and, unlike we’ve seen elsewhere, does not plan to outfit them with firearms. But he said explosive charges could be added to the robots to breach fortified structures, or the robots could be deployed to “contact, incapacitate, or disorient” a dangerous suspect without risking the life of an officer.

In a Wednesday interview San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott emphasized that the lethal function on the robots would only be used in extreme circumstances.

“These robots would be a last resort,” he said. “If we ever have to exercise that option, it either means lives, innocent lives, have already been lost, or in the balance, and this would be the only option to neutralize that person putting those lives at risk, or the person who has taken those lives.”

 

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The robots are remotely operated by officers with specialized training, Scott said. “Our officers who are trained to operate these robots are very well-trained and very skilled at what they do,” he explained. The robots are “not autonomous” nor “pre-programmed,” he added.

The ordinance passed by the board of supervisors specifies that only officers with the rank of deputy, assistant chief, or chief of police will be able to authorize lethal force using the robots, according to Scott.

“I just want to reiterate and re-emphasize that the equipment is already in our possession,” he said of the robots. “We have never had to use it in that way, and I hope that we never have to use it in that way. But we need the option to be able to save lives in the event that we have that type of tragedy in our city.”

Scott said the technology could be particularly helpful in order to apprehend suspects in mass shootings – which are on the increase in the US – without putting officers’ lives in danger.

 

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“These events, these mass killings, are all too common,” he said. “And God forbid one happens here, we just need to give our officers the tools to do their jobs.”

Scott referenced a state law passed in 2021 that requires police departments to seek approval from the government bodies that oversee them before fundraising for, acquiring or using military equipment.

“What we are doing and what we trying to do by law is be transparent about how we could use this equipment,” he said. “We don’t want it to be a secret to anybody. We have nothing to hide.”

It has been widely reported that the first known example of US law enforcement using a robot to deploy lethal force was in 2016, when Dallas police killed an armed suspect accused of fatally shooting five police officers by detonating an explosive device placed on a bomb squad robot sent to where the suspect had taken shelter, and even though that was exceptional it’s now not going to be unique.

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