San Francisco may allow police to deploy robots that kill

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SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco supervisors held a heated debate Tuesday over whether to give city police the ability to use life-threatening remote-controlled robots in emergencies, with both sides accusing the other of sowing the fear.

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Police watchdog groups are urging the 11-member watchdog council to reject the idea, saying it would lead to further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities. They said the parameters under which use would be allowed are too vague.

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The San Francisco Police Department said it has no pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with firearms. 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, SFPD spokeswoman Allison Maxie said in a statement.

« Robots equipped in this way would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent life, » she said.

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The proposed policy does not specify how weapons can and cannot be equipped, leaving open the possibility of arming them. « Robots will only be used as a lethal force option when the risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to the SFPD, » it says. he.


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Members of the city’s board of directors are staunch Democrats who favor gun control, reproductive freedoms and the protection of civil rights, but they are deeply divided on support for law enforcement.

Several supervisors said they were shocked that a city used to protesting the use of military drones had the idea of ​​allowing a robot to possibly kill a person. But others said police make a reasonable request and only issue clearance in the event of a disaster.

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« Whatever was said in this hearing, I don’t see how a robot armed with certain weapons would save lives, » said Shamann Walton, chairman of the oversight board.

The vote falls under a new California law that requires police and sheriff departments to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for its use. San Francisco police currently have about a dozen functional ground robots used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low-visibility situations, according to the department. They were acquired between 2010 and 2017.

The state law was drafted last year by San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu when he was a member of the assembly. It aims to give the public a forum and a voice in the acquisition and use of military-grade weapons that negatively affect communities, in accordance with legislation.

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San Francisco police did not immediately respond to a question about how the robots were acquired, but a federal program distributed grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, bayonets, armored vehicles and more surplus military equipment to aid local law enforcement.

In 2017, then-President Donald Trump signed an order reviving the Pentagon program after his predecessor, Barack Obama, cut it in 2015, sparked in part by outrage over the use of equipment during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting death of Michel Brown.

The first time a robot was used to deliver explosives to the United States was in 2016, when Dallas police dispatched an armed robot that killed a hidden sniper who had killed five officers in an ambush.

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Like many places in the United States, San Francisco tries to balance public safety with valuable civil rights such as privacy and the ability to live free from excessive police surveillance. In September, supervisors agreed to a trial allowing police real-time access to feeds from private surveillance cameras in certain circumstances.

San Francisco’s office of the public defender sent a letter Monday to the board saying that granting police « the ability to kill community members from a distance » goes against the city’s progressive values. The office would like the council to reinstate language prohibiting police from using robots against anyone in an act of force.

Across the San Francisco Bay, the Oakland Police Department dropped a similar proposal after public backlash.

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