Police Robots Authorized to Kill? New SFPD Proposal Is Raising Eyebrows


The police force of the city of San Francisco has a small collection of robots that are remotely controlled and meant to aid police. However, there is a proposal suggesting that these robots should be allowed to use deadly force in serious situations when an officer’s life might be in danger.

This idea has some worried, particularly about the legality of robots utilizing deadly force, and the complications that this could run into.

The proposal is supposed to go to a Board of Supervisors next week, Mission Local reported.

According to the proposal concerning the robots and their uses, the San Francisco Police Department has 17 robots (only 12 are currently working).

The draft policy outlines that these robots could be “remotely controlled unmanned machine that operates on the ground, which is utilized to enhance the safety of the community and officers by providing ground support and situational awareness for law enforcement operations.”

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Only specific operators would be allowed to actually control the robots, the draft added.

But in addition to “providing ground support and situational awareness,” the proposal added that if a police officer’s life is in danger during a situation, the robot would be allowed to use deadly force.

“The robots listed in this section shall not be utilized outside of training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments. Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD,” the proposal outlined.

But there have been serious concerns about this idea.

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Tifanei Moyer, an attorney in the San Francisco area at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, is one person who has communicated doubts about the merit of this proposal.

“We are living in a dystopian future, where we debate whether the police may use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury, or judge,” Moyer told Mission Local in an email.

“This is not normal. No legal professional or ordinary resident should carry on as if it is normal,” she added.

However, Eve Laokwansathitaya, an officer with the San Francisco Police Department, noted that the instances where a robot would be needed in this way would be extremely rare.

“SFPD has always had the ability to use lethal force when the risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available. 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,” Laokwansathitaya told the Verge.

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This is not the first time a policy like this has been considered by a police force.

In Oakland, California, a similar situation was considered, but in October, the department announced that it would not weaponize robots.

“[T]he city of Oakland, California, grappled with a question whose consequences could shape the future of American policing: Should cops be able to kill people with shotgun-armed robots?” the Intercept reported on Oct. 17.

But the next day, the police department announced on Facebook that it would not be arming robots.

“The Oakland Police Department (OPD) is not adding armed remote vehicles to the department. OPD did take part in ad hoc committee discussions with the Oakland Police Commission and community members to explore all possible uses for the vehicle,” the post read. “However, after further discussions with the Chief and the Executive Team, the department decided it no longer wanted to explore that particular option.”

Now San Francisco is weighing the same sort of proposal and will have to decide whether it is a good (and legal) idea to give robots the option of deadly force.

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