Amid public outcry, San Francisco officials reverse course and reject police use of robots to kill
By Taylor Romine and Aya Elamroussi, CNN
San Francisco officials voted Tuesday against a controversial measure that would have allowed police to deploy robots to use lethal force in extreme situations, reversing course after public outcry against the policy.
The about-face from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors comes a week after the board voted to approve the policy in an initial first reading vote, which prompted a protest at City Hall Monday, with some holding signs that said, “NO KILLER ROBOTS!”
On Tuesday, the board voted to remove text pertaining to robots and use of lethal force, according to Natalie Gee, the chief of staff for the board’s president. The text was initially included as part of a larger ordinance aiming to approve San Francisco Police Department funding and use of certain law enforcement equipment, Gee said.
The mayor still has to approve the general ordinance before it goes into effect.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen praised the vote in a statement, saying “common sense prevailed.”
“We stopped the use of killer robots in San Francisco today,” Ronen said. “The public outcry helped six Supervisors fully appreciate the gravity of last week’s vote and the numerous unanswered questions about both the ethics and practical implications of allowing police to use machines to kill human beings.”
Tuesday’s vote comes after the board voted 8-3 last week to approve the measure, which would have given police the authority to use ground-based robots to kill “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and officers cannot subdue the threat after using alternative force options or de-escalation tactics,” according to the ordinance text.
Those in favor of deploying the robots have argued they can be useful in extreme or extraordinary situations, especially if it could prevent the loss of innocent lives.
In an interview last week with CNN, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott insisted the lethal function on the robots would only be used in such circumstances. He also noted that the robots would be operated by officers with specialized training.
Explosive charges could be added to the robots to breach fortified structures, or the robots could be deployed to “contact, incapacitate, or disorient” a dangerous suspect without risking the life of an officer, Scott said.
“These robots would be a last resort,” he said. “If we ever have to exercise that option, it either means lives, innocent lives, have already been lost, or in the balance, and this would be the only option to neutralize that person putting those lives at risk, or the person who has taken those lives.”
Still, officials and residents alike have spoken out against the policy, which needed to be approved by the board as required by a 2021 California law.
“The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city,” Supervisor Dean Preston said Tuesday after the vote. “We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.”
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CNN’s Chris Boyette and Zoe Sottile contributed to this report.