A remote-controlled police robot used to disarm bombs. Image from Shutterstock.

A policy proposal heading for Board of Supervisors approval next week would explicitly authorize San Francisco police to kill suspects using robots.

The new policy, which defines how the SFPD is allowed to use its military-style weapons, was put together by the police department. Over the past several weeks, it has been scrutinized by supervisors Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman and Connie Chan, who together comprise the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee.

The draft policy faces criticism from advocates for its language on robot force, as well as for excluding hundreds of assault rifles from its inventory of military-style weapons and for not including personnel costs in the price of its weapons.

Peskin, chair of the committee, initially attempted to limit the SFPD’s authority over the department’s robots by inserting the sentence, “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person.”

The following week, the police struck out his suggestion with a thick red line.

It was replaced by language that codifies the department’s authority to use lethal force via robots: “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD.” 

This could mark a legal crossing of the Rubicon for the city: Robot use-of-force has never before been approved, nor has it ever been prohibited, in San Francisco. A version of this draft policy was unanimously accepted by the rules committee last week and will come before the full board on Nov. 29.

“The original policy they submitted was actually silent on whether robots could deploy lethal force,” said Peskin. He added that he decided to approve the SFPD’s caveated guidelines because the department had made the case that “there could be scenarios where deployment of lethal force was the only option.”

Advocates and lawyers who oppose the militarization of the police are less convinced.

“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,” said Tifanei Moyer, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Moyer leads the organization’s work on police misconduct and militarization.

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

Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Aaron Peskin, and Connie Chan discuss the new policy. Screenshot via SFGOVTV.

The SFPD has 17 robots in its arsenal, 12 of which it describes as fully functional. According to police spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca, they have never been used to attack anyone. The robots are remote-controlled, and are typically used to investigate and defuse potential bombs or to surveil areas too awkward or dangerous for officers to access.

Uses defined in the new draft policy include “training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments.”

And, in extreme circumstances, they can be used to kill.

How are robots used lethally?

In 2016, the Dallas police force strapped plastic explosives to a robot and used it to blow up a sharpshooter who had killed five officers, in the first U.S. instance of a police robot killing a suspect. One of the SFPD’s robots, the Remotec F5A, is the same model as the one used by Dallas police.

More recently in Oakland, a policy on lethal robots came before the city’s police department’s civilian oversight council. One device they discussed was the PAN disruptor, a device that can be attached to a remote-controlled robot and uses a blank shotgun shell to disable a bomb by blasting it with pressurized water. Oakland police acknowledged that, in emergencies, they could arm it with live rounds. The SFPD also has multiple PAN disruptors that can be attached to robots and fire shotgun shells.

Last month, Oakland police ultimately backed down and removed language that would have allowed them to kill using robots. They said they hope to pursue the option in the future.

Rueca said that the San Francisco Police Department “does not have any sort of specific plan in place” for how lethal force would be applied with robots as “the unusually dangerous or spontaneous operations where SFPD’s need to deliver deadly force via robot would be a rare and exceptional circumstance.”

Why is this happening now?

Cities across California are currently drafting new policies on the use of military weapons by local police forces, thanks to a state law called AB 481, which passed last year. Figuring out the force options of robots is one small part of the law’s remit.

The law mandates that every police force in California must annually report its stock of all military-style weapons, their cost, how they can be used, and how they were deployed in the prior year. The law gives local authorities — in San Francisco’s case, the Board of Supervisors — the ability to annually reject or accept the rules governing how the weapons are used.

The Board will also be required to sign off on any new military-style equipment before purchase, although the police will be able to replace any existing equipment up to a value of $10 million without approval.

An SFPD bomb squad robot was deployed on Valencia Street in 2019. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Most advocates opposed to the militarization of the police hail AB 481 as a step in the right direction for accountability and transparency. But concerns have been raised that some jurisdictions have not gone far enough in limiting how military-style weapons can be used.

Jennifer Tu, a fellow with the American Friends Service Committee, has been tracking how police departments across the state are implementing AB 481.

“My suspicion is that most policies will have left room for robots to use force,” said Tu. She said that it was her understanding that most departments have not mentioned robots at all, which means they are subject only to generic restrictions.

The ACLU has published advice on the use of robots by police, and notes that the limited situational awareness of robots, compared to in-person officers, make it more likely that force is “used inappropriately and/or on the wrong targets.”

“There is a really big difference between hurting someone right in front of you, and hurting someone via a video screen,” said Tu.

What else is in the draft policy?

Tu contended that, on top of the issue of robot force, there are other problems with San Francisco’s draft policy, as it currently stands.

In its initial submission, the SFPD omitted all of its 608 semi-automatic assault rifles, 64 machine guns, and 15 submachine guns from the new use-of-force policy. According to Peskin, these were added in when he pushed back on their omission. But in the department’s latest version, which is set to come before the supervisors next week, 375 of the semi-automatic assault rifles are missing again.

The rationale given for the removal of these assault rifles from the policy: The Chief of Police defines them as “standard-issue service weapons.”

Others disagree with that assessment. “We don’t see regular officers walking around with assault rifles,” said Allyssa Victory, staff attorney with the criminal justice program at the ACLU of Northern California (and recent Oakland mayoral hopeful). “Just writing a policy doesn’t make it so.”

Victory added that shotguns and handguns can be omitted because they are standard issue, according to AB 481, but no such exemption applies to assault rifles.

“The law defines ‘military weapons,’ not the chief of police,” wrote civil rights lawyer Moyer over email. “San Francisco is not the only department to attempt to redefine ‘military weapons’ so as to justify hiding their use, costs, and upkeep from the public.”

“If the law defined military weapons as bubble gum, then the police department would have to disclose their use of bubble gum,” she wrote.

Tu added, “I really think it is confusing to the public if we don’t have those assault weapons reported.” Their omission would mean that in future annual reports, the police would not need to declare how the guns had been used or who had been injured by them.

Another point of contention with advocates is that the SFPD has not included personnel training or maintenance times in their valuation of the cost of their military-style weapons. This appears to be required by AB 481, which states that costs must include “acquisition, personnel, training, transportation, maintenance, storage, upgrade, and other ongoing costs” of the weapons.

But the SFPD rejected a suggestion from the American Friends Service Committee to include personnel costs. The department said that maintenance and training occur during normal work hours, and that their human resources management system cannot track different types of work done by officers, so “there is no compelling reason to track in the suggested manner.”

It remains to be seen if the policy, as it stands, will be approved by the Board of Supervisors, and what limitations will ultimately be placed on the police department’s military-style weapons, including its robots. And, once the rules are settled, the process will begin again with the Sheriff’s Department, which will need to create its own policy to stay in compliance with AB 481.

“The great news about this thing is that it can be evolved,” said Peskin, adding that policy must be scrutinized and approved every year if the SFPD wants to keep using its weapons.

“And I think we are starting off in a good place.”

This policy will be discussed at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday November 29. The meeting starts at 2 p.m. and the police equipment policy is agenda item 28. More details can be found in the full meeting agenda.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. Insane! APRIL 12, 2019 Police Not Required to Protect; Are They Required to Serve?

    In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the only duties of care required by the Constitution are those extended to individuals who are restrained by the government and therefore unable to protect themselves. This includes prisoners and involuntarily committed mental patients.

  2. There is no material difference between “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option” and “when anyone could be killed.” Because this applies to most situations, this wording gives license to replace officers with deadly robots in most situations. I’m not saying they’ll do worse, but if my self-driving car is any indication, expect a lot of vaguely justifiable misfires for many years.

  3. Given what I know of history, no police officer should be using a weapon which can kill a person without a trial and conviction first, ever. These weapons are frightful and presage a future with more pain than we deserve! Places which have laws against assault weapons and don’t buy robots have far less killing, according to reports we read again and again.

  4. Where are the peace loving protestors? What has happened to the San Francisco that was love and peace?

  5. Why does SFPD need to be militarized and why are they proposing to kill at all, robot or not? This is insane!! We need to push back on this!

  6. Robots do surgery, move boxes in warehouses, and are replacing human jobs. They are accurate and effective. If someone needs to be shot, why not have it done by the most accurate means rather than risking the lives of police and bystanders?

    1. No one should be dying on our streets. No one. Death is too great a punishment for most and insufficient punishment for some, but never for a police officer to decide. Ever heard of due process?

  7. Well, it not gonna be the robot that kill us all… it’s the dumbass that makes the call and controlling it….

  8. This is a REALLY sloppy use of language that can have lasting, and very dangerous repercussions. The Remotec F5A the SFPD used to blow up that sniper is a drone: remotely controlled, not autonomous. Robots are, by definition, autonomous. The use of the wrong term here not only inflates this story into the realm of sensationalism, but using the incorrect legal term in official documents like this is unacceptably dangerous.

    With the wording the way it is, the SFPD could strap a pack of C4 to a Raspberry Pi on wheels, try to program it to “go get the bad guy,” and let it go. BIG difference.

  9. I can see the need to use a robot to deploy lethal force in some situations. I can also see why many may see that as the robot making the decision. With this equipment, a human interfaces remotely with the robot. Thus, a sworn officer decides when and if lethal force is necessary.

    I think it prudent to have a level of oversight from someone not on the scene to authorize lethal force delivered robotically. That authorization should come from the highest-ranking individual for that agency on duty. The authorization should be via cell phone, but dispatch needs to enter who requested it and who authorized it, with the date and time.

    Another protocol should include an audible warning delivered by the robot, “Our policy dictates that I must warn you to surrender now, or I am authorized to use lethal force. My accuracy rate is 98.99%. The 1.01% survived. That is the only warning I will provide. Surrender now.”

    The warnings should be available on the device for quick selection, but typing and delivering a customized warning is also possible.

    Before the suspect sees the robot, perhaps its speakers should broadcast a K-9 bark track since most people would prefer to get shot than attacked by a police dog.

    Once the suspect surrenders, the robot should do a little jig as it plays “Staying Alive” or “I Fought the Law and the Law Won.”

    Do I want autonomous robots patrolling the streets and interacting with humans? No.

    Semiautomatic AR-15-style rifles are not assault weapons. A rifle must have a selector switch for Single Shot, 3-Burst Shot, Automatic, and Safety to classify as an assault weapon. If the only selector is for Safety and Single Fire, it is a civilian-grade sporting rifle. If people continue changing definitions of standard nomenclature, the entire country will get confused.

    I do not see the need for police agencies to have automatic rifles. I can see Single Shot and 3-Burst, but on automatic, the weapon becomes nearly impossible to aim accurately. If three of thirty rounds strike the target center mass, the other 27 will hit somewhere else. That makes 27 possible collateral deaths.

    How many crimes occur in the US using automatic rifles or pistols? Doing a quick search, I found one instance when someone used an automatic weapon in the past 20 years. I am only looking at weapons manufactured as automatics. I do not include crimes where someone modified a weapon.

    Next, I wanted to know how many AR-15-style rifles account for homicides. Using the latest data in 2019, I surprised myself by realizing the media lies about guns used in homicides. In 2019, there were 16,425 homicides. The following is the number of murders broken down by weapon type:

    – Handguns: 45.7% (7,506)
    – Firearms (Type Unknown): 23.9% (3,926)
    – Other Weapons (rope, pipe, bricks): 11.4% (1,873)
    – Knives or Cutting Instruments: 10.6% (1,741)
    – Hands, Fists, Feet, Etc.: 4.3% (706)
    – Rifles: 2.6% (427)
    – Shotguns: 1.4% (230)

    First things first, rifles only account for 2.6% of gun deaths (427). Of those, less than 1% use AR-15-style rifles (<5). Wow! That blows my mind! All this panic over "assault weapons" to discover that maybe five (5) deaths occurred using one. An automatic rifle saw only one (1) use with no casualties. That use was in MS, not CA.

    Now let us look at gun deaths using data from 2020. The CDC reports 45,222 gun-related deaths in the U.S.

    – 54% suicide (24,420)
    – 43% murder (19,446)
    – 3% other (1,356)
    – unintentional (509)
    – law enforcement (503)
    – undetermined (344)

    Between 2019 and 2020, there were more homicides, but the weapons used had similar percentages. The 2020 data was not complete, so I interpolated the percentage of each category of weapons used for murder. Since the weapon type between 2018 and 2019 was nearly identical, you can safely use those percentages to figure out the weapons used in 2020.

    If criminals lack access to automatic weapons, why should the police use them? In my mind, the police have a sign in front of their building daring some action movie cast to steal their hundreds of "machine guns."

    Sources:
    FBI criminal statistics
    CDC gun deaths
    NIH gun deaths
    PEW Research
    Joslin Law Firm article

    Note: I will not use Wiki, the NRA, media websites, or anti-gun sites as sources. To use numbers, I must have two sources with matching data. I performed some of the math using my college minor. I am a Technical Editor & Technical Writer.

    1. Shooting in the leg can very easily kill someone via blood loss. Only someone with no actual knowledge of guns thinks that would work.

    2. Set phasers to stun.
      Using an intermediate weapon in response to a lethal threat might work in scenarios where more than one officer is on scene and lethal force is readily available in the event the intermediate weapon fails to subdue. Tasers are very effective when they work & they work best when the probes strike the posterior of the aggressor (electromuscular disruption on larger muscle groups). They don’t always work though. Thick clothing, a probe missing, probes being pulled out intentionally or dislodging from the subject rolling on the ground. A lone officer is gambling with her life and the lives of others when she responds to a lethal threat with a less-lethal, intermediate weapon. Pepper spray vs gun, Taser vs knife, or baton vs machete are all under-matched methods of setting an officer up for failure.

      Just shoot them in the leg.
      Nicking or severing the femoral artery is a great way to rapidly bleed to death. You’ve got one of these arteries in each leg.
      Shooting a smaller target (leg vs center mass of torso) under autonomous, fight or flight conditions (i.e. 30% bullet hit rate) has a greater chance of missing. Police are typically reacting to a life threatening gesture when they draw and fire their weapon. This is light years away from being at the firing range amongst peers, in total safety, shooting at a paper target that doesn’t preset a threat.

  10. The SFPD is shorthanded….and they are overwhelmed because of it.
    Everyone is getting laid off..
    Do the people actually want to hide their heads in the sand about what’s to come? Do the people actually believe that the criminals are going to respect gun laws?
    It’s a bad robot until you get have your turn at being pistol whipped and robbed.
    I suggest you all get the Citizen app so that you can see first hand what’s really going on.

  11. Most of the “robots” are cameras on small wheeled/tracked systems. They’re essentially an RC car with a GoPro. Literally.

  12. Will… since I did not go to Oxford and study English, I am happy to be corrected, but you may want to revisit the title of your piece… Wouldn’t “SFPD authorized to use robots to kill suspects” (where it is clear that the SFPD is the possessor of the robot doing the killing) be better than “SFPD authorized to kill suspects using robots” (where the suspects are the possessors of the robot doing… something)?

  13. The opponents would rather stack the bodies of a few dead cops than deal with realities, as proven in Dallas. It’s really that simple.

  14. Ever thought of using a robot to subdue and capture a suspect alive? No? Why not? Who’s getting paid off for the stupid proposal?

  15. Blowing Smoke,
    We as citizens will not have any vote so I hope the fault will hold a certain person liable.Where are they already using A.I ‘s (human looking robots)as personnel as law enforcement officers and prison guards. ?

  16. Added, I can see what the abandonment like tolerance can strike in a force of unwillingness of a tolerate in drug addiction causes to pain the crisis that not all users fall, to putting addiction is out of the picture, but now who’s target.

  17. Have the robot responsibility on a single officer controlling it, and use it just like the PD would use a sniper — as a tool to take out a serious threat, with the actual kill/no-kill decision made by the on-scene commander.

    Like many Californians, I’ve grown sick of those who value the well being of violent criminals over everyone else, and those who think our cops should only take knives to gunfights.

    1. rational roach…hey bootlicker did you see the arsenal of machine guns and assault rifles the SFPD has?

  18. Have the governor be the one to approve the robot killings and have the governor have a live feed of such events. That way when someone is killed, it’s on the governor, and we have accountability .

    1. Governor Lepetomane: What the hell is this?

      Hedley Lamarr: This is the bill that will convert the state hospital for the insane into the William J. Le Petomane memorial gambling casino for the insane.

      Governor Lepetomane: [standing up proudly] Gentlemen, this bill will be a giant step forward in the treatment of the insane gambler

  19. This is classic SF – “national politics in lieu of local politics”.

    This group will end up debating robot force policies for months; when in reality the likelihood of SFPD being approved by the BOS for a robot (much less additional recruitment!) in the next decade is infinitesimal.

    SF will emerge in two years with first-of-its-kind robot force policies — that will never be used — while local issues stagnate.

    For anyone with strong opinions here, I’m not arguing that robot force policies aren’t important/impactful, just that they shouldn’t be a priority for SF now.

    1. The article states that “SFPD has 17 robots” (directly after the photo of the Supes). So that ship has sailed Plus a surprising number of heavy weapons (in second para of section entitled “What else is in the draft policy?).

      1. Thank you for catching my error!

        That said, I still feel my point stands – are policies governing the utilization of the 12 (still working out of 17) SFPD robots the top priority for either SFPD or BOS?

        It seems absurd and I agree with the virtue-signaling comment posted above.

  20. London Greed in 2020: “As a Black woman, I’m personally offended by what happened to George Floyd, and will do all in my power to hold our own police force accountable. 🤔

    London Greed in 2022: “Now that I’ve turned Union Square into a garrison (https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Nothing-says-holiday-cheer-like-San-Francisco-s-16707991.php ), installed a crooked DA, and cut off ease-of-access to COVID safety 😷💉 in the midst of a still-ongoing pandemic, how can I take one step further towards libertarian dystopia? Hmm? Prototype ED-209s, you say? I’ll sign for it!” 🤖🚔

  21. We can only hope these robots will enforce the law in a fair and balanced way, something the SFPD seems incapable of doing on both fronts.

  22. Fine. Fire the cops and train work-at-home citizens to man the robots then. No reason to employ ‘roid heads and arm them with weapons if they are not up to do the job.

  23. The power to use force via robot should not be assigned to all police officers, who can and do hide behind qualified immunity while taking actions not acceptable to the public they serve. That should be a decision assigned to the police chief or someone acting in that capacity and no one else. The police chief can be held accountable by the board without having to break through qualified immunity.

  24. I feel that SFPD needs all the help it can get in order to help save lives. Both the publics and theirs. Times have changed. Why should a criminals life be more important than a cops?

  25. Killer robots! Just one more thing to be worried about. There has to be strict usage policies, and specially trained operators, I’d go so far as to say teams of operators, in case one operator has some kind of mental breakdown.

  26. Dear San Francisco,

    Please do NOT approve this part of the draft.

    Sincerely,
    Former resident concerned for your citizens

  27. “. . . human resources management system cannot track different types of work done by officers, so “there is no compelling reason to track in the suggested manner.” ”

    ???

    Ohhh, MAN! What a massive hair ball – so many probable underlying things to unpack, but let me start with just one question for now.

    How does a system’s inability to track different types of work (done by officers) determine that there’s no need to track that work?

    Just off the top of my head with a sledgehammer nod to a key word, d’ya *THINK* better programming could help?

    Poor reasoning deposited into complete sentences doesn’t improve the reasoning.

    1. Absolutely. “We don’t want to follow the law because it would be annoying to rewrite our processes.”

      That’s not an excuse anyone should accept.

  28. I’d like to know, perhaps ahead of the vote, how various supervisors line-up on lethal robots.

    It’s hard for me to believe the ACLU is right when it claims a robot gives the cops less situational awareness, I would think the ability to have a a remote camera in an otherwise barricaded room would let the cops slow down and breathe and get things right before they start blazing

    But I would have asked SFPD for a list of incidents in the past ten years in which a lethal robot would have been better than the response that was provided and the particulars of events they anticipate where a lethal robot would be better than sending in surveillance robots and drones followed at sometime by cops

    I can see why lethal robots could be helpful, but they should have to provide strong evidence of that