A  person holds a red sign that says, 'no killer robots'.

San Francisco has paused its plan to allow police to use lethal force robots after a public outcry

San Francisco has suspended a controversial policy allowing police to use robots for lethal force, after its approval sparked a backlash and warnings about the militarization and automation of policing.

The Board of Supervisors, the legislature, voted unanimously to explicitly ban the use of bots in this way for the time being on Tuesday.

However, they have returned the issue to a committee for further discussion, and could vote in the future to allow police to use robots in a lethal manner in limited cases.

The council voted last week to allow killer robots to be used in extreme circumstances.

The police department said it has no plans to arm the robots with guns, but wants the ability to set explosives on them and use them to contact, incapacitate or confuse dangerous or armed suspects when their lives are in danger.

The initial vote thrust the city into the center of a debate about the future of technology and policing, with some saying that weaponizing robots was a step too close to something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie.

Although police robot technology has become widely available, departments across the country rarely use it to confront or kill suspects.

The council vote was the result of a new state law that requires police departments to create equipment inventories.(Associated Press photo: Jeff Chew)

Three supervisors who rejected the policy from the start joined dozens of demonstrators Monday outside City Hall to urge the council to change course.

They chanted and held up banners with phrases such as: “We all saw this movie… No killer robots.”

Superintendent Dean Preston was among them, and he told colleagues on Tuesday that the public had not been given enough time to voice their concerns about such a pressing issue.

“San Francisco residents have spoken out loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city,” he said.

“We must work on ways to reduce the use of force by local law enforcement, not give them new tools to kill people.”

The vote was the result of a new state law requiring police departments to take inventory of equipment, including some rifles, grenades, armored vehicles and battering rams, and to seek express approval for its use.

A group of people standing on the steps of the City Hall, holding banners.
People staged a demonstration outside San Francisco City Hall on Monday.(Associated Press photo: Jeff Chew)

Some officials in San Francisco wanted to move forward with allowing bots to use deadly force in certain cases, arguing that nothing of substance had changed to justify a rollback.

But the vote to move forward with the broader police equipment policy, including banning killer robots, passed unanimously.

Police are still allowed to use robots to scan potentially dangerous scenes so officers can stay behind.

“Having robots that have eyes and ears and can clear bombs, which they do occasionally, is something we want the police department to do as we continue to have this contentious debate,” said Superintendent Aaron Peskin, who introduced last week on the use of robots.

The new policy needs another vote to take effect.


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