One of the effects of AB 481 is to add local surveillance to hardware like that obtained through a US Department of Defense program that sends billions of dollars military equipment such as armored vehicles and ammunition to local police departments. The program’s equipment was used against protesters following the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
Earlier this year, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin amended San Francisco’s draft military-grade police equipment policy to explicitly prohibit the use of robots to apply force against any person. But an amendment proposed by the SFPD this month said police should be free to use robotic force, as their officers should be ready to respond to incidents in which multiple people were killed. “In some cases, lethal force against a threat is the only option to mitigate these mass casualties,” the amendment says.
Ahead of yesterday’s vote, Brian Cox, director of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Integrity Unit, called the change antithetical to the progressive values the city has long stood for and urged supervisors to reject the SFPD proposal. “It is a false choice, based on fear and the desire to write their own rules,” he said in a letter to the supervisory board.
Cox said the deadly robots on the streets of SF could cause serious harm, compounded by “the SFPD’s long history of excessive use of force, especially against people of color.” The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights have also expressed opposition to the policy.
The San Francisco Police Department revealed that it has 17 robots, although only 12 are operational. They include search and rescue robots designed for use after a natural disaster like an earthquake, but also models that can be equipped with a shotgun, explosives or a pepper spray emitter.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin raised the potential for police to use explosives during the debate ahead of yesterday’s vote. In a confrontation in Philadelphia in 1985, police dropped explosives from a helicopter on a house, starting a fire that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes.
Peskin called it one of the most atrocious and unlawful incidents in US law enforcement history, but said the fact that nothing similar has ever happened in San Francisco gave him some consolation. . He eventually voted to allow SFPD to use deadly robots. But he added the restriction that only the chief of police, deputy chief of operations or deputy chief of special operations could authorize the use of deadly force with a robot, as well as language that invites consideration of de-escalation. .
Granting approval to killer robots is the latest twist in a series of police tech laws from the tech hub that is San Francisco. After passing a law prohibiting the use by the police of Tasers in 2018, and provide oversight of surveillance technology and prohibit the use of facial recognition in 2019, city leaders in September gave police access to private security camera footage.
Supervisor Dean Preston addressed San Francisco’s inconsistent record on police technology in his dissent yesterday. “If the police shouldn’t trust Tasers, they certainly shouldn’t be trusted with killer robots,” he said. “We have a police, not an army.”
San Francisco’s new policy comes at a time when police access to robots is growing and those robots are becoming more capable. Most existing police robots move slowly on tracks, but police forces in New York and Germany are beginning to use legged robots like the Agile Quadruped Spot Mini.
Axon, makers of the Taser, offered to add the weapon to drones to stop mass shootings. And in China, researchers are working on quadrupeds that work in tandem with tiny drones to hunt suspects.
Boston Dynamics, a pioneer in legged robots, and five other robotics makers released a open letter in October opposing the militarization of their robots. The signatories said they felt a renewed sense of urgency to state their position due to “a small number of people who have visibly gone public with their makeshift efforts to weaponize commercially available robots.” But as robotics becomes more advanced and cheaper, there are plenty of competitors without these caveats. Ghost Robotics, a Pennsylvania company in pilot projects with the US military and Department of Homeland Security on the US-Mexico border, allows customers to mount weapons on its legged robots.