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San Francisco decides killer police robots aren’t such a good idea

A dystopian future with robot cops will have to wait. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved the use of lethal robots by the San Francisco Police Department last week. Although some bomb disposal robots currently shoot shotgun rounds and some are employed by the military as gun platforms, the goal was to arm the bomb disposal robots with bombs, allowing them to drive up to suspects and detonate. After public outcry, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided unanimously to (temporarily) ban deadly robots, reversing last week’s 8-3 decision that authorized the robots.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights organizations quickly launched a “No Killer Robots” campaign after the initial news broke. There is no evidence to suggest that robots armed with bombs may be an exception to police abuse of fatal force,” the letter, signed by 44 community organizations, argued. An excellent illustration of this trend of escalation and of the militarization of the police force that worries so many people in the city is the use of robots intended to disarm explosives to instead deliver them.

Around a hundred protesters gathered outside San Francisco City Hall on December 5 with signs reading “We’ve all seen that movie… No Killer Robots.”

One of the San Francisco supervisors who voted against the programme in the beginning was among the demonstrators; his name is Dean Preston. Preston suggests that the SFPD broke the law by not announcing the robot policy 30 days before it was put to a vote. According to California Gov Code 7071(b), which Preston cites in a letter to San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Police Chief William Scott, departments seeking approval for military equipment must “make those documents available on the law enforcement agency’s internet website at least 30 days prior to any public hearing concerning the military equipment at issue.” At a later point, Preston elaborates, saying, “I want to underline that this is not just a technicality.” Our City Attorney, when serving in the Assembly, drafted this statute with the goal of “ensuring openness and giving the public a chance to weigh in on these decisions.”

San Francisco’s Chronicle reports that, “for now,” the use of killer robots has been ruled illegal. The committee will be discussing the subject further and may vote on the policy again at a later date.

Preston, in a news statement following the reversal, said, “The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: there is no place for deadly police robots in our city.”

In closing, the statement says: “I am calling on my colleagues to take heed of the powerful backlash and make sure this harmful policy is never approved – not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”