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San Francisco police seek approval to use robots to deploy lethal force

Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A recent draft proposal introduced by the San Francisco Police Department could authorize cops to use remote-controlled robots to deploy lethal force on suspects, KRON-TV reported.

If passed, the law enforcement equipment use policy will allow the SFPD to utilize heavy-duty robots for “training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments.”

According to the proposal, “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD.”

The policy also noted that only trained authorities who have completed the FBI’s 6-week hazardous device school would be allowed to operate the remote-controlled robots.

The proposal mentions 17 robots acquired by the SFPD, 12 of which are described as functional. One of those includes the IRobot FirstLook, a lightweight throwable robot capable of investigating dangerous material by providing operators with visual, audio, and sensory feedback. It can also climb small obstacles, turn in place, and correct itself if it flips over.

The controversial proposal argues that using robots will provide law enforcement with situational awareness and ground support.

On November 14, the rules committee reviewed the policy update and unanimously decided to send it to the Board of Supervisors for a vote on Tuesday.

Tifanei Moyer, a senior staff attorney of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, told the Mission Local that she is a critic of the proposal.

“We are living in a dystopian future, where we debate whether the police may use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury, or judge,” Moyer stated.

“This is not normal,” Moyer added. “No legal professional or ordinary resident should carry on as if it is normal.”

SFPD spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca told Mission Local that none of the robots acquired by the department have been used to attack anyone. Instead, remote-controlled robots are mainly used to investigate and defuse potential bombs and surveil dangerous areas.

A similar policy was recently proposed in Oakland, California, and the police department ultimately decided to remove language that would allow robots to be used for lethal force.

"SFPD has always had the ability to use lethal force when the risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available," SFPD Officer Eve Laokwansathitaya told the Verge. "SFPD 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."

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