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‘San Francisco Will Use Robots to Kill the Homeless’: Public React to Decision Include Robots In Law Enforcement

The city of San Francisco has made a radical move in law enforcement, one that many believe will put more people in danger than help them. In a recent vote, officials moved to allow robots to be deployed to handle emergency situations, allowing them to use lethal force while policing.

San Francisco Killer robots
Mary Wareham, global coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, on Monday urged the international community to stop developing lethal autonomous weapons systems, or killer robots. (Photo by Li Muzi/Xinhua via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Nov. 29, The San Francisco Board of Trustees’ supervisors in Fog City agreed 8-3 to equip police with the option to use remote-controlled robots in emergency situations, after an emotional debate over the dangers it could present to poor and mostly minority communities, the Associated Press stated.

People are comparing the decision to use the machines as a plot straight out of Hollywood, pointing to the 1987 movie, “Robocop.”

The police department submitted a proposal using robots “as a deadly force option” only “when the risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD,” The Week reported.

The plan was created after a new California law was passed that requires police and sheriff departments to provide an inventory of their military-grade equipment and to detail how each item should be used. The law also gives city governments the right of final approval on the use of the equipment within departments.

Supervisor Connie Chan said the concerns about the use of the robots are not far-fetched but assured the audience people would be protected by legislation that already exists, saying, “according to state law, we are required to approve the use of these equipments. So here we are, and it’s definitely not an easy discussion.”

The debate about the ethics of using robots lasted for hours.

According to the Washington Times, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties nonprofit organization in San Francisco, blasted the board for not addressing the checkered past within law enforcement in regard to racial bias in policing that sometimes leads to the misuse of deadly force and military equipment and technology. 

The policy analyst for the EFF, Matthew Guariglia, said, “The fact is, police technology constantly experiences mission creep — meaning equipment reserved only for specific or extreme circumstances ends up being used in increasingly everyday or casual ways.”

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman voted in favor of the policy authorization to use robots. He said one of his issues with those against the use of robots is the anti-police rhetoric around the proposal.

“I think there’s larger questions raised when progressives and progressive policies start looking to the public like they are anti-police,” Mandelman 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 disagreed, saying it was not anti-police, but “pro-people of color.”

He said, “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. This is just one of those things.”

Walton voted against the proposal.

Mandelman took to Twitter to talk about the great lengths to limit misuse of the robots, “Under this policy, SFPD is authorized to use these robots to carry out deadly force in extremely limited situations when risk to loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available.”

Social media exploded with people commenting on the vote.

One person sarcastically asked, “What could go wrong? #WrongfulDeathLawsuits.”

“You know San Francisco when people were asking you to deal with the crime, they didn’t mean unleashing killer robots,” Nunya Doe wrote.

A user said this was going to absolve accountability for the SFPD, writing, “Noooot messing with the robot thing in San Francisco cause that’s just one giant excuse for them to be like ‘well, it was the robot that hurt that person” and take zero accountability.’”

“San Francisco will use robots to kill the homeless,” Spacewad worried.

Few understood that the robots will not be used for patrolling.

In a statement, The San Francisco Police Department said the force does not have pre-armed robots. The department further said it has no plans to arm robots with guns in the future.

In 2010 and 2017, the city acquired about a dozen functioning ground robots, which are used to assess bomb threats or scope out low visibility areas but have not been used to handle explosives or shoot.

The SFPD officers and surrounding sheriff departments have to get approval from higher-ups, as now stated by law, to actually use the early robots.

For that law enforcement agency, according to the SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie, the robots will be useful in times of crisis, particularly if they have the capacity to exhaust explosives that could incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect” when people’s lives are in jeopardy.

“Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” Maxie explained.

During Tuesday’s discussion on the vote, supervisors adjusted the language of the proposal to amend the terms on how the robots should be used. The proposal voted for states cops will be allowed to deploy the robots after attempting alternative methods, exploring de-escalation tactics, and/or being unable to subdue a suspect by other means.

Also, not every cop will have access to the robots, limiting the operations of the machines to high-ranking officers who will be authorized to exercise their deadly force option. Police also informed the community that none of the robots were obtained from military surplus but were bought by the agency with federal grant money.

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