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Oakland, Calif., Police Reverse Course on Lethal Robot

Police officials have decided not to pursue approval to use lethal armaments on its robot. The department currently has a robot fitted with a percussion actuated nonelectric disrupter, which can fire lethal shotgun ammunition.

An example of an explosive disposal robot.
(TNS) — The Oakland Police Department this week reversed course on armed robots and said it would not seek approval to use the remote killing machines after initially exploring the idea over a series of meetings.

Lethal armed robots — roving machines that can select and shoot targets without an operator present on scene — have drawn condemnation from human rights organizations opposed to militarized police departments.

Oakland police discussed the use of armed robots with the Oakland Police Commission and community members "to explore all possible uses," the department said in a statement Tuesday. "However, after further discussions with the chief and the executive team, the department decided it no longer wanted to explore that particular option."

The department did not say why it had decided to abandon the option.

California law requires police to obtain City Council approval to use military-grade weapons and other now-standard policing tools, like drones. The civilian members of the Police Commission review any rule changes and make recommendations to the City Council.

The Oakland council had been set to consider a ban on the use of armed robots at its Tuesday meeting, as recommended by the Police Commission, but the issue was tabled because the council did not have a quorum of members present by the end of the nearly 10-hour meeting.

The announcement came two days after a report in the Intercept described an internal controversy between civilian members of the city's Police Commission and department leaders surrounding the use of armed robots and other military-grade police equipment in police work.

The issue first surfaced publicly on Sept. 21 during a routine discussion of militarized equipment, when civilian police commissioners, weighing how to amend Police Department rules governing robot use, learned that the department already had a robot armed with a shotgun — a device known as a PAN disrupter (the acronym is short for "percussion actuated nonelectric").

It is one of several features made possible by the robot's detachable arms, according to police documents submitted to Oakland City Council. The robot has, for example a rotating claw with a telescoping camera, as well as detachable arms for distributing tear gas from canisters.

The feature that caused controversy at the Sept. 21 meeting was the PAN disrupter, which the Police Department said it has used only in training. The gun-shaped tool can be filled with projectiles including blank shotgun shells, liquid or live ammunition, and used for purposes like bomb detonation or blowing open locked doors.

"Can a live round physically go in, and what happens if a live round goes in?" asked Jennifer Tu, a member of the commission's subcommittee on militarized policing.

"A live round can go in absolutely and you'd be getting a shotgun round," replied Lt. Omar Daza-Quiroz, who represented the Police Department in discussions about its robot policy. He later told commissioners that officers had not used live ammunition in the robot and had used blank rounds during training sessions.

Stunned, Jesse Hsieh, another civilian commissioner, then asked: "Does the department plan on using a live round in the robot PAN disrupter?"

"No," Daza-Quiroz replied, before continuing, "I mean, is it possible we have an active shooter in a place we can't get to and he's fortified inside a house?"

The task force members struggled to digest the information and spent several more minutes discussing how to regulate the potentially lethal armed robot, the existence of which they had not previously known. They debated whether to recommend a complete or partial ban of the device.

Hsieh said he feared the "dystopian" potential of unmanned weapons in Oakland.

The issue spilled over into the next day's police commissioners' meeting, when members of the task force voiced their concerns about the device.

"We learned that there is a detachable tool called a PAN disrupter — it's essentially a shotgun barrel that loads blank shotgun rounds specifically for breaching locked doors and locked gates," said Hsieh. "But we learned yesterday that this thing can be loaded with a live shotgun round."

"That is extremely concerning," Hsieh added.

Daza-Quiroz explained that live ammunition had "never been used," even in training exercises, and said that the Police Departmnet has used robots in tactical deployments since 2011 for "basic patrol duties."

"It is to your disposal as an added resource, but it doesn't mean you might use it," he said.

After hours of debate, police commissioners agreed to develop two sets of recommendations for City Council consideration, Police Commissioner David Jordan said in an interview Wednesday. One policy recommendation would have called for a total prohibition on the use of armed robots, while another would have "left the door open" for their use under "very extreme and unlikely circumstances."

"After mulling it over and having conversations with command staff, we decided to remove that option and moved forward with total prohibition," Jordan said.

On Tuesday, the department said it would no longer pursue City Council approval for use of the armed robot.

Jordan said he was dismayed by the public discourse surrounding the use of armed and lethal robotic policing equipment, which he believes has focused more on "scare tactics" than facts. Commissioners devoted dozens of hours to examining "all angles, all facets of their use and questioning our preconceived notions" before making their recommendations to council members.

Taken out of context, the notion of "killer robots" is "a terrifying concept and a thing nobody wants to see — including the police," he said.

Most City Council members did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Noel Gallo, representing Oakland's District Five, said he supported the Police Department's decision not to seek approval for the devices, but that he also would have supported their use of the tool in certain extreme circumstances.

"Police need the tools and support to keep their officers as safe as possible," Gallo said.

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