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San Fran to vote on police robots using deadly force

Daytona Beach police sergeant Tim Ehrenkaufer flies a drone Tuesday equipped with a camera and a intercom system that allows officers to speak to someone without getting physically close to them. [News-Journal/David Tucker/TNS]
November 28, 2022

San Francisco police have come up with a new policy allowing them to kill suspects using robots – a first for the city and a potential milestone in law enforcement’s deepening relationship with machines.

The policy, part of a broader set of rules around use of law enforcement equipment, is set to go before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Nov. 29, Mission Local reported.

Robots under the policy would “only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available.” Police could use robots while apprehending suspects, during “critical incidents,” and while executing warrants, the policy states.

San Francisco Police Department has 17 remotely piloted robots, 12 of which are functional, according to the policy. The department mostly describes the robots’ abilities for reconnaissance, disarming explosives, lifting heavy objects and detecting hazardous materials.

San Francisco’s new policy hadn’t mentioned robots until a city supervisor added a line saying, “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person,” Mission Local reported. SFPD replaced that line with the language quoted above.

Until now, robot use-of-force has been neither permitted nor prohibited in San Francisco, according to Mission Local. Last month in the neighboring city of Oakland, police backed down from implementing armed robots amid concern from local officials, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Police robots are increasingly popular and favored by law enforcement for keeping officers out of harm’s way and eliminating bias, according to Built In. However, an analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, Jay Stanley, has previously written that the “biggest concern” with armed robots is that they “will be over-used.”

“As robots allow deadly force to be applied more easily and with less risk to police officers, and as they get cheaper and more commonplace, there is a risk that they will turn into yet another avenue for abusive behavior by some in law enforcement,” Stanley wrote.

Those comments came after Dallas police in 2016 used a robot-mounted bomb to kill a sniper who had shot five police officers during a protest. That robot-enabled killing, considered the first-ever by U.S. police, was preceded by unsuccessful negotiations in an hours-long standoff, Reuters reported.