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San Francisco bars police from using killer robots, reversing recent vote

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San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to bar police from using robots to kill, in a striking reversal that comes just days after it gave law enforcement that right in a limited number of situations.

The board had received widespread criticism after voting Nov. 29 to approve a police proposal authorizing law enforcement to deploy remote-controlled, ground-based robots to use deadly force when there is “imminent” risk to life and alternative measures to subdue the threat do not work.

Officials on Tuesday also sent the issue back to a committee for additional review, leaving the policy open to future amendment.

District Supervisor Dean Preston (D), who had voted against the measure last week, called the reversal “crucial.”

“There have been more killings at the hands of police than any other year on record nationwide,” Preston said in a statement. “We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.”

“Common sense prevailed,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen (D), who had also originally opposed the measure.

The San Francisco Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Tuesday. It had called last week’s vote a “testament to the confidence” of officials and residents in law enforcement.

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Officials had been required to vote on the policy due to a recent state law that requires police departments to seek approval from local officials for the use of military-grade equipment, the Associated Press reported.

Militaries have long used unmanned devices to kill, but the debate over whether police can deploy killer robots first emerged in the United States after an incident in Dallas in 2016. After a lone gunman killed five officers in an extended standoff, police placed explosives on a robot and detonated the bomb to kill the shooter.

The board’s vote last week sparked furious debate and angry protests from rights groups who were concerned about the “militarization” of law enforcement, which they argue would disproportionately affect communities of color, who are more likely to be killed in police encounters than White Americans.

The proposal “is not a public safety solution, as the department claims, but an expansion of police power that history and common sense demonstrates will endanger lives needlessly,” reads a Dec. 5 letter from several Bay Area civil rights groups to Mayor London Breed (D) and the supervisors.

Can police use robots to kill? San Francisco voted yes.

The pressure seemed to have worked on board members such as Gordon Mar (D), who publicly switched his position ahead of Tuesday’s vote. Mar said Tuesday that he had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with the precedent the policy would set for other cities and had decided to vote against it.

San Francisco’s police department acquired robots between 2010 and 2017, which they said were primarily used during situations involving explosives or those requiring officers to keep distance while securing a site. They currently are not equipped to use lethal force.

The department said that only a small number of high-ranking officials were authorized to deploy robots that could use lethal force. Police Chief William Scott had said that it would only be used as a “last resort option.”



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