IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Public Outcry Prompts SFPD to Pause Lethal Robot Policy

Despite policy guardrails that would have only allowed police to use a robot to kill a suspect in extreme cases, San Francisco supervisors have walked back their approval amid significant public protest.

(TNS) — San Francisco supervisors have walked back their approval of a controversial policy that would have allowed police to kill suspects with robots in extreme cases.

Instead of granting final authorization to the policy Tuesday in its second of two required votes, the Board of Supervisors reversed course and voted 8-3 to explicitly prohibit police from using remote-controlled robots with lethal force. It was a rare step: The board's second votes on local laws are typically formalities that don't change anything.

But the board's initial 8-3 approval of the deadly robot policy last week sparked a wave of public outcry from community members and progressive supervisors who threatened to go to the ballot if their colleagues did not change their minds on Tuesday.

After approving a new version of the police policy that bans officers from using robots to kill dangerous suspects such as mass shooters and suicide bombers, supervisors separately sent the original deadly robot provision of the policy back for further review.

The board's Rules Committee may now choose to refine that provision — placing tighter limits on when police can use bomb-bearing robots with deadly force — or abandon it entirely, leaving in place the prohibition passed Tuesday.

Supervisors are expected to take a final vote on the new version of the policy that bans deadly robots — for now, at least — next week.

The fight is part of a larger Bay Area conflict about how to balance public safety with modern technology while safeguarding civil liberties. In September, San Francisco supervisors approved a controversial policy to let police temporarily monitor live surveillance feeds in some cases, despite critics who thought it trampled on privacy rights.

"The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city," Supervisor Dean Preston said in a statement after Tuesday's vote. He added that the city "should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people."

The robot policy was put forward because of a new state law, AB481, that requires law enforcement agencies to get approval from local governing bodies on how they use military-grade weapons. AB481 was authored by City Attorney David Chiu when he was still serving in the state Assembly.

Police have said they wanted to use robots to kill only in extremely rare cases with violent suspects, as Dallas police did in 2016 after someone fatally shot five officers.

The previously proposed policy would have allowed police to deploy robots with lethal force when the risk of death to officers or the public was imminent and police tried other de-escalation tactics or determined they could not subdue the threat by other means. A high-ranking SFPD official would have had to approve any actual use of a deadly robot.

But critics feared that the policy could be abused and would allow police to kill people far too easily. Preston was joined by Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton and Supervisor Hillary Ronen in voting against the policy last week and they spoke at a rally Monday morning outside City Hall, where they encouraged their colleagues to change their minds. Preston said at the rally that he was prepared to work with activists on a possible ballot measure if the policy was approved on its final vote.

Supervisor Gordon Mar, who was part of the majority that approved the deadly robot policy last week, changed his mind and said Monday that he was prepared to vote against it on Tuesday. Mar said he had become "increasingly uncomfortable" with the policy over the past week and was concerned about "the precedent it sets for other cities without as strong a commitment to police accountability."

Three supervisors continued to support the policy approved last week. Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Matt Dorsey and Catherine Stefani preferred to keep the killer robots policy as it was and voted against the change.

Ultimately, Supervisor Aaron Peskin proposed sending the question of whether and how police can use robots with deadly force back to the Rules Committee, which he chairs.

His colleagues agreed to do so while also advancing a new version of the broader policy on SFPD's use of military-grade weapons. Peskin said it was necessary for the policy to ban killing suspects with robots for now because he wanted police to be able to use robots for other purposes.

"There may be instances tomorrow or the next day where I think all of us would agree that... having robots that have eyes and ears and can remove bombs, which happens from time to time, is something that we want the Police Department to do while we continue to have this very controversial discussion," Peskin said at Tuesday's board meeting.

Preston, meanwhile, had also questioned whether supervisors had provided sufficient public notice before their vote on the robot policy last week. He said in a Sunday letter to Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott that AB481 required 30 days' notice of the policy before any public hearing but the killer robot provision was added mere days before being presented to supervisors in committee.

SFPD said in a statement that it complied with public noticing requirements. A spokeswoman for the City Attorney's Office also said the noticing requirement had been fulfilled. But she said supervisors could still choose to send the killer robot provision of the policy back to committee if they wanted to "solicit further public input."

©2022 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.