Supervisors in San Francisco voted Tuesday to grant city police the power to use potentially lethal remote-controlled robots in emergency situations, following an emotionally charged debate that reflected divisions on the politically liberal board over support for law enforcement.
The vote was 8-3, with the majority agreeing to grant police the option despite strong objections from civil-liberties and police-oversight groups. Opponents said the authority would lead to the further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities.
Supervisor Connie Chan, a member of the committee that forwarded the proposal to the full board, said she understood concerns over use of force but that, “according to state law, we are required to approve the use of these equipments. So here we are, and it’s definitely not a easy discussion.”
The San Francisco Police Department said it does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns. But the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient [a] violent, armed, or dangerous suspect” when lives are at stake, police spokesperson Allison Maxie said in a statement.
“Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” she said.
Supervisors amended the proposal Tuesday to specify that officers could deploy robots only after using alternative force or de-escalation tactics or concluding that they would not be able to subdue the suspect through those alternative means. Only a limited number of high-ranking officers could authorize use of robots as a deadly-force option.
San Francisco police currently have a dozen functioning ground robots used to assess bombs or as eyes in low-visibility situations, the department says. They were acquired between 2010 and 2017, and not once have they been used to deliver an explosive device, police officials said.