From left, Tenaya Jones, Ari Duarte and Lucero Herrera protest at the Dec. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting regarding 'killer robots.' Photo by Jesus Arriaga

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.

All other parts of the policy, which outline how the SFPD can use its military-style weapons in accordance with state law AB 481, passed unanimously.

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.

Groups opposed to the San Francisco Police Department using robots to kill people gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday.

“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.

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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. I’m wondering if robots might actually be safer. If they are built wisely they won’t have PTSD and be jumpy after their tours in the Middle East. If they are equipped with cameras all shootings should be documented so they can be honestly analyzed. They could offer a cup of tea or a zoom call with a family member or pet in a hostage situation. This could be an improvement over the current set up. There’s nothing in law enforcement training about transparency, risk management, quality assurance or professionalism in documentation like I see in the airline, medical or educational fields. Imaging if we cut off the wrong leg on someone and just said, unfortunate mistake but since all policies and procedures were followed let’s just move on and keep on keeping on. Robots could be made to do real time documentation with a remote, independent supervisor.

  2. I’m glad that common sense, or sensible ones won over for now.
    Killer robot really is only good for one thing: war. And even then, wars are wrong to begin with, which is all based on enriching a few arms maker and politicians. Wars have absolutely nothing to do with regular folks, those that believe it does, are just begin used, like pawns.

  3. THIS:

    “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.”

    As for the SFPD’s “reality” show? Prob’ly not gonna happen. Why would the current iteration of the department opt for honesty?

  4. Can we not see this “killer robot” as the red herring that it is?

    According to the items in the policy that passed our BOS, the police will now have access to armored personnel carriers, Humvees, weaponized aircraft, explosive breaching apparatuses, firearms of .50 caliber or greater, assault weapons, explosive projectiles, explosive breaching tools and more. But as long as they do not have remote control guns we’ll be fine. How easily people are distracted.

  5. Supervisor Mandelman is unhinged. He has gone over to the dark side. The strange and terrible story of a policymaker who has lost his way. Mandelman’s decision making is deeply flawed; He seems to have forgotten he was elected to serve thousands of San Franciscans and not the City Hall machine. He has failed to take a strong position in the preservation of the Castro theater. He consistently votes in lockstep with this Mayor’s heartless and inhumane policies. That a gay man would support the hyper militarization of our city’s police force when recent data reveals escalated killings and use of excessive force by SFPD is beyond reason.

  6. Having witnessed corruption in SF for a long time, it still is a bit surprising to see the supes flirting with the possibility of turning SF into an authoritarian police state. Perhaps more surprising is that, from national media attention about SF’s problems, and SF proposing to do a reality SFPD television show, the weird cult of authoritarians behind a fair amount of SF politicians are, at the very least, national in scope. Is SF being set up to be the cutting edge prototype of a lock-down 1984-like police state for the rest of the country?