The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a new policy on Tuesday in an 8-3 vote that will allow the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to use remotely-operated robots with explosives in extreme situations where lives are at risk.
The proposed policy has been under heavy discussion in the last several weeks due to the SFPD needing to outline what all military equipment they have is being used for under the AB 481 law. Despite such robots being used before to take out suspects in extreme situations, such as when a robot was used in Dallas in 2016 against a sniper targeting police officers, they have not been used for such an incident before in California. Some proposals have been tried before to authorize the use of such robots, most recently last month in Oakland when the police tried to pass a similar policy to the SFD proposal, but none received enough support.
However, in San Francisco, police officials convinced many lawmakers in the city that such robots were needed in the rare scenarios where lethal force was the only option. While the ultimate wording was changed several times to appease SF Supervisors, the ultimate policy wording released in a draft last week read:
“The robots listed in this section shall not be utilized outside of training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments. Robots will 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 to SFPD.”
The policy draft subsequently made national and international news and led to a charged debate during the Board of Supervisors vote on Tuesday. During a two-hour long debate, pros and cons of public safety, police use of force, and police aggression, city officials and lawmakers went over the issue.
Supporters noted that not only did police need the best technology available to help protect the public, but that such technology would ultimately save more lives and that state law was on their side.
“Police need to have the most advanced technology available to stop mass shootings and terrorism,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. “It is bad for progressives to paint the police as untrustworthy. To say this is some rogue organization terrorizing the neighborhoods of San Francisco that can not be trusted with technology they’ve had for more than a decade, is beyond preposterous to me.”
Supervisor Connie Chan added, “According to state law, we are required to approve the use of these equipments. So here we are, and it’s definitely not an easy discussion.”
Opponents, meanwhile, said that the technology would only increase the “negative interaction” between the SFPD and local minority residents, and that the robots showed just how much funding was going to the SFPD and not other departments in the city.
“Allowing SFPD to use robots to inflict deadly force is a terrible idea, something one would expect to find in a sci-fi film, not before a legislative body in San Francisco,” tweeted Supervisor Dean Preston before his vote on Tuesday. “But there’s a reason why SFPD thinks they can get away with this, and that’s because the City has repeatedly written blank checks to the department with no accountability and little oversight. I will not be supporting the policy as currently written.”
Allowing SFPD to use robots to inflict deadly force is a terrible idea, something one would expect to find in a sci-fi film, not before a legislative body in San Francisco. 1/2
— Dean Preston (@DeanPreston) November 28, 2022
Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton also said, “Voting against the policy does not make me anti-police, but instead pro people of color. We continuously are being asked to do things in the name of increasing weaponry and opportunities for negative interaction between the police department and people of color. This is just one of those things.”
Board of Supervisors passes policy following last minute amendments further limiting the use of deadly force robots
Despite the opposition, many members were ultimately appeased by late amendments limiting the deadly force option authorization being limited to only a few high-ranking officers and the use of such a robot being further restricted to incidents where all other forms of de-escalation and alternative means failed. With the new amendments in place on Tuesday, the policy passed 8-3.
Many police and security experts noted on Tuesday and Wednesday that, despite robots now being an option for the SFPD, such incidents in which they will be used will be nearly non-existent.
“The police today are so well versed on how to talk to suspects and, if hostile, how to best apprehend or neutralize them, that this is only for the most extreme cases,” explained Frank Ma, a former law enforcement official who now works as a security advisor for businesses in San Francisco and cities in the Peninsula, to the Globe on Wednesday. “The Dallas case had a sniper, who shot and killed several police officers, holed up in an area that could not be seen by helicopters or the ground, with the suspect still armed and willing to use his weapon, and his position being one where a direct confrontation could of led to more police injuries and deaths. There was no other option besides waiting him out where, again, in time there was a high likelihood that he would have tried to shoot his way out. That’s the kind of scenario the SFPD would need to be in to even entertain the idea of using a robot.
“The arguments Supervisors made against using the robots, like it was out of a science fiction movie, were most of the same arguments made against tazers, breach charges, certain types of firearms, and other new technology. It may not be pretty, but these advances save lives and are eventually made more common. And robots are now a more common tool. They use them for bomb defusing and going into areas that are otherwise hostile, and this is just another, much more rarely used, way.”
Other cities in the state are likely to insider the use of robots in similar extreme situations in the near future.
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