This is not normal. No legal professional or ordinary resident should carry on as if it is normal.”
A policy proposal heading for Board of Supervisors approval next week would explicitly authorize San Francisco police to kill suspects using robots.
The new policy, which defines how the SFPD is allowed to use its military-style weapons, was put together by the police department. Over the past several weeks, it has been scrutinized by supervisors Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman and Connie Chan, who together comprise the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee.
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.
Peskin, chair of the committee, initially attempted to limit the SFPD’s authority over the department’s robots by inserting the sentence, “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person.”
The following week, the police struck out his suggestion with a thick red line.
It was replaced by language that codifies the department’s authority to use lethal force via robots: “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.”
This could mark a legal crossing of the Rubicon for the city: Robot use-of-force has never before been approved, nor has it ever been prohibited, in San Francisco. A version of this draft policy was unanimously accepted by the rules committee last week and will come before the full board on Nov. 29.
“The original policy they submitted was actually silent on whether robots could deploy lethal force,” said Peskin. He added that he decided to approve the SFPD’s caveated guidelines because the department had made the case that “there could be scenarios where deployment of lethal force was the only option.”
Advocates and lawyers who oppose the militarization of the police are less convinced.
“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,” said Tifanei Moyer, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Moyer leads the organization’s work on police misconduct and militarization.
“This is not normal,” she wrote over email. “No legal professional or ordinary resident should carry on as if it is normal.”
The SFPD has 17 robots in its arsenal, 12 of which it describes as fully functional. According to police spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca, they have never been used to attack anyone. The robots are remote-controlled, and are typically used to investigate and defuse potential bombs or to surveil areas too awkward or dangerous for officers to access.
Uses defined in the new draft policy include “training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments.”
And, in extreme circumstances, they can be used to kill.
How are robots used lethally?
In 2016, the Dallas police force strapped plastic explosives to a robot and used it to blow up a sharpshooter who had killed five officers, in the first U.S. instance of a police robot killing a suspect. One of the SFPD’s robots, the Remotec F5A, is the same model as the one used by Dallas police.
More recently in Oakland, a policy on lethal robots came before the city’s police department’s civilian oversight council. One device they discussed was the PAN disruptor, a device that can be attached to a remote-controlled robot and uses a blank shotgun shell to disable a bomb by blasting it with pressurized water. Oakland police acknowledged that, in emergencies, they could arm it with live rounds. The SFPD also has multiple PAN disruptors that can be attached to robots and fire shotgun shells.
Last month, Oakland police ultimately backed down and removed language that would have allowed them to kill using robots. They said they hope to pursue the option in the future.
Rueca said that the San Francisco Police Department “does not have any sort of specific plan in place” for how lethal force would be applied with robots as “the unusually dangerous or spontaneous operations where SFPD’s need to deliver deadly force via robot would be a rare and exceptional circumstance.”
Why is this happening now?
Cities across California are currently drafting new policies on the use of military weapons by local police forces, thanks to a state law called AB 481, which passed last year. Figuring out the force options of robots is one small part of the law’s remit.
The law mandates that every police force in California must annually report its stock of all military-style weapons, their cost, how they can be used, and how they were deployed in the prior year. The law gives local authorities — in San Francisco’s case, the Board of Supervisors — the ability to annually reject or accept the rules governing how the weapons are used.
The Board will also be required to sign off on any new military-style equipment before purchase, although the police will be able to replace any existing equipment up to a value of $10 million without approval.