In an unexpected about-face, the Board of Supervisors today voted to temporarily ban the police department from using robots with lethal force.
This came after the Board approved lethal robot force in an 8-3 vote last week, as part of a policy that defines how the San Francisco Police Department can use its military-style weapons.
Today’s vote was that policy’s second hearing. Second hearings are typically seen as technicalities required for new policies to pass into city law, but last week’s vote proved controversial, and 8 of 11 supervisors have now opted to send the section about robot force back to the drawing board.
The Rules Committee, composed of supervisors Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman and Connie Chan, will deliberate further on how police robots should be restricted. Until they are done and supervisors can consider and approve their revamped language, the SFPD will not be allowed to use lethal robot force.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin proposed the amendment that pushed the robot section of the policy back to committee. Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Catherine Stefani and Matt Dorsey voted against it. Dorsey and Mandelman said that nothing had changed since their prior vote, and that enough time had been spent on the policy already.
But over the past seven days, opposition to the policy has mounted.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit based in the city, submitted a letter to the board on Monday opposing the use of police-operated robots to kill people. The letter was signed by some 44 local organizations, including the ACLU of Northern California, the American Friends Service Committee, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Service Employees International Union Local 1021.
“The SFPD’s proposal is not a public safety solution, as the department claims,” reads the letter, “but an expansion of police power that history and common sense demonstrates will endanger lives needlessly.”
The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office also voiced its opposition in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. The letter argued that “allowing SFPD the ability to kill community members remotely will make San Francisco an outlier, and cuts against the progressive values this City has long stood for.” The letter noted that Oakland recently rejected a similar proposal.
A rally against the policy was held on the steps of City Hall on Monday. Speakers included supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen and Dean Preston.
“There is no way that I am going to sit by silently and allow a policy as dangerous and reckless as this to be adopted and go into effect in the city and county of San Francisco,” Preston said at Monday’s rally. “We will fight this legislatively at the board. We will fight this in the streets, in public opinion and, if necessary, we will fight this at the ballot.”
Last week, the policy passed its first reading easily, with only supervisors Ronen, Preston and Walton in opposition. Gordon Mar, who is set to be succeeded as District 4 supervisor by Joel Engardio in January, indicated on Monday that he regretted his earlier support.
“Even with additional guardrails, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with our vote & the precedent it sets for other cities without as strong a commitment to police accountability,” Mar wrote in a Twitter thread on Monday. “I do not think making state violence more remote, distanced, & less human is a step forward.”
“The enormous outcry from people across San Francisco and beyond has caused the supervisors to reconsider killer robots,” said John Lindsay-Poland, co-director of the American Friends Service Committee. “That is a good thing.”
However, Lindsay-Poland added that he was disappointed that the rest of the policy passed without additional amendments. He said that the SFPD has not declared 375 of its assault rifles in the policy, which will make the department less accountable for their use. He also encouraged the Rules Committee to act quickly in finalizing its robot policy, saying it should not “kick the issue down the road.”
The Rules Committee meets at 10 a.m. each Monday, although it is unclear if discussion of robot use of force will be on the agenda next week. Public comment will be permitted when the policy is discussed by the Rules Committee.