On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board approved equipping the Police Department with potentially lethal robots with the ability to kill via remote control. The administration assured that its use would be limited to exceptional cases when human lives are in danger.
One of the supervisors of the Department's Rules Committee who presented the proposal, Connie Chan, explained the approval of this measure:
Under state law, we are required to approve the use of this equipment in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent life. So here we are, and it's definitely not a simple discussion.
San Francisco Police Department spokeswoman Allison Maxie specified when officers would be able to use the robots:
As an intermediate force option, robots could potentially be equipped with explosive charges to break into fortified structures containing violent, armed or dangerous subjects, or used to contact, incapacitate or disorient violent, armed or dangerous suspects who pose a risk of loss of life to law enforcement or other first responders through the use of any other method, approach or contact.
"Lethal force as the only option"
Aaron Peskins, chairman of the Department's Rules Committee, explained to the newspaper Missiony Local that he had given the go-ahead to this measure despite his own misgivings. He initially didn’t want to include the phrase "robots shall not be used as a use of force against any person," but relented after arguments from police officers that "there could be scenarios where deployment of lethal force was the only option."
Officer Eve Laokwansathitaya insisted on this aspect in statements to 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."
"This is not normal”
This reasoning was rejected by Tifanei Moyer, senior attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area: "This is not normal. No legal professional or ordinary resident should continue as normal. We live in a dystopian future, where there is a debate about whether police can use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury or judge." This is not just any opinion, as Moyer is the organization's point person on police misconduct and militarization.
The San Francisco police force's proposal reopens the debate launched less than a month ago by their colleagues in Oakland. On that occasion, the controversy which came from the proposal led the Department's chiefs to finally withdraw the proposal.