One of the effects of AB 481 is to add local oversight of devices such as the kind obtained through a US Department of Defense program that sends Billions of dollars of military equipment such as armored vehicles and ammunition to local police departments. Equipment from the program has been used against protesters following the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
Earlier this year, San Francisco Superintendent Aaron Peskin amended a draft San Francisco policy for military-grade police equipment to explicitly prohibit the use of robots to project force against a person. But an amendment proposed by the SFPD this month argued that police need to be free to use automated force, because their officers must be prepared to respond to incidents in which multiple people are killed. “In some cases, lethal force against a threat is the only option to mitigate such collective losses,” the amendment read.
Before yesterday’s vote, Brian Cox, director of the Integrity Unit at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, called the change antithetical to the progressive values the city has long championed and urged supervisors to reject the SFPD proposal. “This is a wrong choice, based on arousing fear and a desire to write their own rules,” he said in a letter to the Board of Supervisors.
Killer robots on San Francisco’s city streets can cause significant harm, Cox said, made worse by SFPD’s “long history of using excessive 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 their opposition to the policy.
The San Francisco Police Department has revealed that it has 17 robots, though only 12 are operational. They include search and rescue robots designed for use after a natural disaster such as an earthquake, but also models that can be equipped with a gun, explosives, or pepper spray emitter.
Superintendent Aaron Peskin pointed to the possibility of police error in the use of explosives during the discussion ahead of yesterday’s vote. During a 1985 confrontation in Philadelphia, police dropped explosives from a helicopter on a home, causing a fire that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes.
Peskin called it one of the most egregious and illegal incidents in the history of US law enforcement, but said the fact that nothing similar had happened in San Francisco gave him some measure of comfort. He eventually voted to allow the SFPD to use killer robots. But he added the restriction that only the chief of police, assistant chief of operations, or deputy chief of special operations could authorize the use of lethal force with a robot, along with language urging consideration of de-escalation.
Granting approval for killer robots is the latest development in a series of laws related to police technology from the San Francisco tech hub. After passing a law denying police use of Tasers In 2018, providing monitoring technology supervision and The use of facial recognition is prohibited In September 2019, city leaders allowed police access to private security camera footage.
Superintendent Dean Preston pointed to San Francisco’s inconsistent record on police technology in his dissent yesterday. He said, “If the police can’t be trusted with stun guns, then hell certainly shouldn’t be trusted with killer robots.” We have a police force, not an army.
San Francisco’s new policy comes at a time when police have expanded access to robots, and those robots are becoming more capable. Most current police robots move slowly on caterpillar tracks, but police forces in New York and Germany are starting to use legged robots like Agile four-legged Spot Mini.
Axon, the manufacturer of the Taser, suggested adding the weapon to the Drones to stop mass shootings. And in China, researchers are working on quad vehicles that work in conjunction with small drones to hunt down suspects.
Boston Dynamics, a leading manufacturer of two-legged robots, and five other robot manufacturers have published open letter In October they object to the weaponization of their robots. The signatories said they felt a renewed sense of urgency to speak out because of “the few people who have so publicly publicized their temporary efforts to weaponize commercially available bots”. But as robots become more advanced and cheaper, there are plenty of competitors without these reservations. Ghost Robotics, a Pennsylvania company in pilot projects with the US Army and the Department of Homeland Security on the US-Mexico border, allows customers to mount weapons on its two-legged robots.
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