San Francisco's Board of Supervisors backtracks on controversial police robots

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San Francisco's Board of Supervisors backtracks on controversial police robots

San Francisco Supervisors voted Tuesday to put the brakes on a controversial policy that would have let police use robots for deadly force, a reversal of course just days after their approval of the plan generated a lot of backlash and warnings about the militarization and automation of policing.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban the use of robots in such a way. They sent the issue back to a committee for further discussion and could vote on the issue in the future to let police use robots in limited cases.

The board voted last week to allow the use of deadly robots in extreme circumstances. The police department said it had no plans to arm the robots with guns, but wanted the ability to put explosives on them and use them to contact, incapacitate or disorient dangerous or armed suspects when lives are at risk.

The initial vote thrust the liberal city into the centre of a debate about the future of technology and policing, with some saying arming robots was too close to something one would see in a dystopian science fiction movie. Although robot technology for policing has become more widely available, departments across the country have rarely used it to confront or kill suspects.

Three supervisors who opposed the policy from the beginning joined dozens of protesters Monday outside City Hall to urge the board to change course. They chanted and held signs with phrases like We all saw that movie. Supervisor Dean Preston was among them, and he told his colleagues that they hadn't been given enough time to voice their concerns about such a pressing issue.

He said that the people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city. We need to be working on ways to reduce the use of force by local law enforcement and not give them new tools to kill people. The new state law requires police departments to have explicit approval for their use, including certain weapons, grenades, armored vehicles and battering rams. So far, only San Francisco and Oakland have discussed lethal robots as part of that law. The Oakland police wanted to arm robots with shotguns, but backed down in the face of public opposition, instead opting for pepper spray.

Some San Francisco officials wanted to continue with allowing robots to use deadly force in certain cases, but they argued nothing substantive had changed to warrant a reversal. The vote to advance the broader police equipment policy — including the ban on lethal robots — passed unanimously.

It still allows police to use robots to check out potentially dangerous scenes so that officers can stay back.

Having robots that have eyes and ears and can remove bombs is something we want the police department to do while we continue to have this very controversial discussion, said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who brought forward last week s motion about the use of robots.