San Francisco Police Want to Be Allowed to Kill People With Robots

SFPD “does not have any sort of specific plan in place” for when killer robots would be necessary, but it wants to use them nonetheless.
Police robot holding gun
picture alliance / Contributor via Getty
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This Series explores surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights. made possible with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on a new rule today that would authorize the city’s police department to kill people with robots.

The policy proposal, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors Rule Committee last week, explicitly authorizes the police department’s robots to 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 same standards that apply to when human officers kill people.

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That the proposal is even coming up for a vote has alarmed privacy and civil rights activists in the city. “We have a very clear position that we do not think in a domestic policing context robots should ever be armed,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We really fear you’d be seeing these armed robots coming out to every protest on standby and that’s just a very dangerous situation.”

The vote will come on the heels of the city passing a new rule that allows SFPD to livestream private security cameras around the city, a policy that was supposedly reserved only for the most extreme circumstances but could now apply to virtually any First Amendment protest given the vague language of the rule. As Motherboard has previously reported, EFF and other organizations warned the SFPD and Mayor’s office about that loophole before the rule was enacted but both offices ignored them.

In similar fashion, according to the local news site Mission Local, the chair of the Rules Committee, Aaron Peskin, tried to remove the authorization for killer robots by adding the sentence “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person” but the police department deleted it. This was a very different outcome to what happened across the bay in Oakland last month, when the police department abruptly reversed course on plans to arm robots with shotguns due to public outcry

Motherboard asked the SFPD when it envisions using robots to kill people. In a statement to Motherboard, SFPD spokesperson Eve Laokwansathitaya said the department “does not have any sort of specific plan in place as the unusually dangerous or spontaneous operations where SFPD's need to deliver deadly force via robot would be a rare and exceptional circumstance.” 

In 2016, the Dallas Police Department loaded a bomb disposal robot with explosives to kill a shooting suspect. It was largely regarded as the first instance of a U.S. police department using a robot to kill someone, a practice criminal justice experts say was imported from U.S. military operations in Iraq.

Asked what he thinks the prospects of the rule passing are, Guariglia said, “A few months ago I would have said definitely not, but after the surveillance ordinance passed, I’m a little concerned now that people have really bought into this idea of security theater.”

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.