In a series of little noted Zoom meetings this fall, the city of Oakland, California, grappled with a question whose consequences could shape the future of American policing: Should cops be able to kill people with shotgun-armed robots?
The back-and-forth between the Oakland Police Department and a civilian oversight body concluded with the police relinquishing their push for official language that would have allowed them to kill humans with robots under certain circumstances. It was a concession to the civilian committee, which pushed to bar arming robots with firearms — but a concession only for the time being.
The department said it will continue to pursue lethal options. When asked whether the the Oakland Police Department will continue to advocate for language that would allow killer robots under certain emergency circumstances, Lt. Omar Daza-Quiroz, who represented the department in discussions over the authorized robot use policy, told The Intercept, “Yes, we are looking into that and doing more research at this time.”
The controversy began at the September 21 meeting of an Oakland Police Commission subcommittee, a civilian oversight council addressing what rules should govern the use of the city’s arsenal of military-grade police equipment. According to California state law, police must seek approval from a local governing body, like a city council, to determine permissible uses of military equipment or weapons like stun grenades and drones. Much of the September meeting focused on the staples of modern American policing, with the commissioners debating the permissible uses of flash-bang grenades, tear gas, and other now-standard equipment with representatives from the Oakland Police Department.
Roughly two hours into the meeting, however, the conversation moved on to the Oakland police’s stable of robots and their accessories. One such accessory is the gun-shaped “percussion actuated nonelectric disruptor,” a favorite tool of bomb squads at home and at war. The PAN disruptor affixes to a robot and directs an explosive force — typically a blank shotgun shell or pressurized water — at suspected bombs while human operators remain at a safe distance. Picture a shotgun barrel secured to an 800-pound Roomba on tank treads.
While describing the safety precautions taken while using the PAN disruptor, Daza-Quiroz told the subcommittee that the department takes special care to ensure that it is in fact a blank round loaded into the robot’s gun. This led a clearly bemused Jennifer Tu, a fellow with the American Friends Service Committee and member of the Oakland Police Commission subcommittee on militarized policing, to ask: “Can a live round physically go in, and what happens if a live round goes in?”
“Yeah, physically a live round can go in,” Daza-Quiroz answered. “Absolutely. And you’d be getting a shotgun round.”
After a brief silence, Commissioner Jesse Hsieh asked the next question: “Does the department plan on using a live round in the robot PAN disruptor?”
The answer was immediately provocative. “No,” Daza-Quiroz said, before quickly pivoting to hypothetical scenarios in which, yes, just such a shotgun-armed robot might be useful to police. “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? Or we’re trying to get to a person —”
It soon became clear the Oakland Police Department was saying what nearly every security agency says when it asks the public to trust it with an alarming new power: We’ll only use it in emergencies — but we get to decide what’s an emergency.