San Francisco reverses approval of killer robot policy

The city's Board of Supervisors voted to ban the use of lethal force by police robots -- for now.

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

In late November, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors had approved a proposal that would allow the city's police force to use remote-controlled robots as a deadly force option when faced with violent or armed suspects. The supervisors voted 8-to-3 in favor of making it a new policy despite opposition by civil rights groups, but now they seem to have had a change of heart. During the second of two required votes before a policy can be sent to the mayor's office for final approval, the board voted 8-to-3 to explicitly ban the use of lethal force by police robots. As San Francisco Chronicle notes, this about-face is pretty unusual, as the board's second votes are typically just formalities that echo the first ones' results.

The San Francisco Police Department made the proposal after a law came into effect requiring California officials to define the authorized uses of their military-grade equipment. It would have allowed cops to equip robots with explosives "to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspects." Authorities could only use the robots for lethal force after they've exhausted all other possibilities, and a high-ranking official would have to approve their deployment. However, critics are concerned that the machines could be abused.

Dean Preston, one of the supervisors who oppose the use of robots as a deadly force option, said the policy will "place Black and brown people in disproportionate danger of harm or death." In a newer statement made after the board's second vote, Preston said: "There have been more killings at the hands of police than any other year on record nationwide. We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people."

While the supervisors voted to ban the use of lethal force by police robots — for now, anyway — they also sent the original policy proposing the use of killer robots back for review. The board's Rules Committee could now amend it further to have stricter rules for use of bomb-equipped robots, or it could scrap the old proposal altogether.