The SF Police Department got Board of Supervisors approval to use robots as a “deadly force option” against suspects Tuesday night. But at least the robots will only have bombs instead of firearms?

When Mission Local broke the news last week that the San Francisco Police Department was asking for legal permission to use robots to kill suspects, the idea of “killer robots” quickly drew national and international scorn. (A similar effort in Oakland was retracted last month after similar blowback.)

So, those who support these lethal robots pushed back. Supervisor Rafeal Mandelman tweeted Tuesday that “None of the robots have firearms attached, and SFPD has no plans to attach firearms. However, in extreme circumstances it is conceivable that use of a robot might be the best and only way of dealing with a terrorist or mass shooter.”

So, though the robots won't have firearms, they will be equipped with “explosive charges,” or bombs, according to SFPD. The robots, thus, would only be killing suspects with bombs, not firearms. After all, we’re not savages here.

The proposal went before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Tuesday, and it was approved. The Board voted 8-3 to authorize SFPD to equip those robots with explosives and allow them to use deadly force, with only Supervisors Dean Preston, Hillary Ronen, and Shamann Walton voting against the authorization.

SFPD Assistant Chief David Lazar spoke to the board in favor of the lethal robots, citing 600 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, and the 2017 Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas that killed 60 people. “It could happen in San Francisco, where you have an active shooter that is shooting people,” Lazar told the board. “We [SFPD] would then think to ourselves, okay, this is a possible option.”

Not all of the board was convinced. “In 2018, San Francisco voted 62-38 [percent] to not entrust police with Tasers,” Supervisor Preston said. “So if police shouldn’t be trusted with Tasers, they sure as hell shouldn't be entrusted with killer robots. I think allowing police to arm remote-controlled robots on the streets of San Francisco is dangerous.”

The SFPD already has the robots, and has had them for years. They’re just not authorized to use them to kill. A 2021 law called AB 481 (written by our own City Attorney David Chiu, back when he was in the state Assembly) requires law enforcement agencies to create policies governing military-type equipment. The department is just now seeking the permission for the explosives part.

“We’re talking about using a robot that we’ve had for 11 years in the San Francisco Police Department,” Lazar explained. “People in the media have reported that we are asking for new technology. We’ve had this capability, and we’ve had the ability to use this robot for 11 years.”

“These are not autonomous robots, no one’s tapping in,” he added. “These are trained police officers that would utilize a robot. Instead of a police officer or other members of the public being injured or killed by this individual, we would send the robot in and use force that way. And we would save lives in doing that.”  

But there was plenty of contentious opposition, with Supervisor Ronen citing a letter from the above robotics technician Kat Scott. Scott noted that this is an off-label use of the existing robots — they weren’t built to have bombs added. These models SFPD has, which are Northrop Grumman Remotecs, “were not designed for lethal force. As such any novel armaments attached to these robots will be at best jury rigged, and pose a danger to both SFPD and the citizens of San Francisco."

“The idea that a robot could go into a school to get the shooter, and the kids that could be around it, opens up a Pandora’s box that is terrifying,” Supervisor Ronen said. “We should absolutely not allow robots to use force in San Francisco.”

Preston was also aghast. “We’re going to blow up the apartment building with a robot?” he asked. “We’re going to use a robot with a bomb to subdue a suicide bomber? What’s the threat that the suicide bomber poses? That they might detonate their bomb. So we’re going to send a robot with a bomb to detonate a bomb?”

Preston’s opposition to giving SFPD lethal robots was well-recognized by the San Francisco Police Officers Association, which as seen above and below, was posting insulting memes towards Preston throughout the day Tuesday. But it’s fair to look at these memes and wonder… are these the people whom we feel have the maturity to be entrusted with lethal, remote-controlled robots?  

Assistant Chief Lazar insisted the lethal robots would be used only in the gravest situations, those where “we know that this end result is going to end up in a shootout, the person is not going to be taken alive, maybe they've made threats they’re going to shoot or kill police officers. We have to have an extra tool to save the lives of officers and the lives of people.”

“Our use-of-force policy is the very same, there is no change with regard to this additional technology,” he added. “Whether we use pepper spray, or a firearm, or a baton, or any tool that we have, we have to follow our policies with regard to the use of force. That does not change.”

And Supervisor Mandelman objected to the rhetoric around “killer robots.” “To say that this is some some rogue organization terrorizing the neighborhoods of San Francisco that cannot be trusted with technology that they have had for more than a decade is beyond preposterous to me,” he said. “It starts feeling like they're just anti-police.”

“Is ‘killer robot’ an objectionable term?” Preston shot back. “Would people prefer ‘a robot that kills?’ Is that more acceptable?”

Supervisor Gordon Mar, who ultimately voted for the measure, added, ”I do not think robots with lethal force will stop Asian hate, or improve the ludicrously low rate of solving crimes, or stop smash-and-grab or retail theft. And I do think they can erode trust in SFPD and the communities they serve.”

But Supervisor Shamann Walton stuck to his guns, so to speak, and voted against the authorization. ”The scenarios that were presented here seemingly to me would create a situation where a robot would actually harm innocent bystander,” he said. “As a grandparent, as a parent, the last thing I want is a robot responding to a mass shooting at my children’s school or my grandchildren’s school. There’s no way, shape, form or fashion that I would be excited with that.”  

But eight supervisors did side with it. “The militarization of the police force,” Supervisor Catherine Stefani said, “Is because of the militarization of our citizenry over the last 20 years.”

“When an 18-year-old can purchase a weapon of war with a credit card in Texas and walk into an elementary school and eviscerate children with that weaponry, that is the problem,” she added. (I would say 60 police officers waiting an hour to do anything was the problem in Uvalde, Texas, but what do I know.)  

And Supervisor Matt Dorsey pointed out that SFPD was only asking permission for something they can already do. “It exists everywhere in California,” he said. “I am not aware of any restriction on the use of robotic implements to deploy deadly force by any of the 509 police departments in California. Uses of force are governed by guardrails that are in the Fourth Amendment and case law around that.”

The measure was contentious enough that an amendment had to be added during Tuesday’s meeting. Supervisor Aaron Peskin put in an amendment that “authorization be limited to a handful of people in the department.” Those people would be “only the chief, assistant chief of operations, or deputy chief of special operations may authorize the use of robots as a deadly force option,” according to Peskin. And there will be an annual report to the board, so they can revise this policy if they feel necessary.

And who knows, maybe someday we will be talking about how these robots saved everybody in some potential grievous mass shooting attack or other calamity in San Francisco.

Or maybe we won’t be the ones talking about it, because we were killed in a “robot-involved accidental bomb discharge,” or whatever it is SFPD will call that if and when it should happen with these bomb-enabled lethal robots.

Related: SFPD Asking for Killer Robots That Can Use Deadly Force [SFist]

Top image: A NYPD bomb disposal robot carries an unexploded pressure cooker bomb on September 17, 2016 on West 27th Street in New York City. Another device had exploded earlier injuring 29 people on 23rd St. in Chelsea. (Photo by Lucien Harriot/Getty Images)