The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote soon on a policy that would allow the San Francisco Police Department to use deadly force by arming its many robots. This is a spectacularly dangerous idea and EFF’s stance is clear: police should not arm robots.
Police technology goes through mission creep–meaning equipment reserved only for specific or extreme circumstances ends up being used in increasingly everyday or casual ways. We’ve already seen this with military-grade predator drones flying over protests, and police buzzing by the window of an activist’s home with drones.
As the policy is currently written, the robots’ use will be governed by this passage:
“The robots listed in this section shall not be utilized outside of training and simulations, criminal apprehensions, critical incidents, exigent circumstances, executing a warrant or during suspicious device assessments. Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD.”
This is incredibly broad language. Police could bring armed robots to every arrest, and every execution of a warrant to search a house or vehicle or device. Depending on how police choose to define the words “critical” or “exigent,” police might even bring armed robots to a protest. While police could only use armed robots as deadly force when the risk of death is imminent, this problematic legal standard has often been under-enforced by courts and criticized by activists.
This occurs as many police departments have imported the use of robots from military use into regular policing procedures, and now fight to arm those robots.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will be voting on whether to pass this bill on first reading at their November 29, 2022 meeting, which begins at 2pm. You can find your Board of Supervisors member here. Please tell them to oppose this.
Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and policing at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is the co-editor of The Essential Kerner Commission Report (Liveright, 2021) and his bylines have appeared in NBC News, the Washington Post, Slate, Motherboard, and the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock. Matthew is an affiliated scholar at University of California, Hastings-School of Law and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole. (Photo by Zack Garlitos)