San Francisco’s ‘killer robot’ saga

Story by Max Guerrera 

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors reversed their decision (which originally passed with an 8-3 vote) Dec. 6 to authorize a policy permitting the police department to use robots armed with explosives. 

While reversing a measure is very rare, it’s unclear if the  Supervisors will completely undo their decision or make revisions to the version that was passed. The measure will be sent back to the Rules Committee, which will hold a discussion Monday at 10 a.m.

This has been a hot topic for discourse online and a group of over 100 people gathered at the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall on Dec. 5 to protest. The Board announced the reversal a day later. 

According to the policy that was passed on Nov. 29, the robots “shall not be utilized outside of training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments.” It’s unclear which incidents are classified as “critical” and the chief staff at SFPD will be authorized to use the robots for lethal force. 

Supervisor Aaron Peskin stated that they will only be authorized to kill when there is a “Risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and officers cannot subdue the threat after using alternative force options or de-escalation tactics options, or conclude that they will not be able to subdue the threat after evaluating alternative force options or de-escalation tactics.” In the original draft of the policy, Peskin wrote that “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person.” 

Mission Local released a response to the original statement from Katt Scott, a local robotist who thinks that the attachments on these robots will risk harm to both SFPD and the citizens of San Francisco. She said “The current policy permits the use of technology that lacks sufficient regulation, and could create dangerous legal precedents. More insidiously, the policy as it stands will create a financial incentive to create weaponized robots for domestic use against American citizens at a time when no meaningful laws exist to regulate their use.” 

There are also opinions about this topic on our own Peninsula. 

“Robots don’t have the ability to practice restraint, and god forbid there was a malfunction,” said Bay Area native and second-year Grace Sjöberg. If the citizens in San Francisco were afraid of the weaponry the police possess, she believes that the city won’t be safer because “when people are afraid, they either comply because they feel like they have no other choice, or make rash decisions out of fear. Neither of those outcomes reflect the American ideals of liberty or freedom to me.”

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