|In 2021, California passed Assembly Bill 481, which requires law enforcement agencies to obtain approval from a county’s board of supervisors prior to taking certain actions relating to the funding, acquisition, or use of military equipment. The law also requires local law enforcement agencies to list and define the authorized uses of all military-grade equipment in their possession. Pursuant to that requirement, a proposed use of equipment policy was submitted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by the San Francisco Police Department. The SFPD has more than a dozen functioning, remote controlled robots, which are used to gain situational awareness, survey specific areas officers may not be able to reach, as well as investigate and defuse potential bombs, or aid in hostage negotiations. However, while the robots are not presently outfitted with lethal force options, critics warn that it won’t take much in the way of weaponry and programming to convert these robots to killer robots. Indeed, some within the robotics industry have cautioned against weaponizing general-purpose robots, which could be used “to invade civil rights or to threaten, harm, or intimidate others.”
Nevertheless, in an 8-3 vote on Nov. 29, 2022, the Board of Supervisors approved a proposal to allow police to arm robots and use them as deadly force options “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweighs any other force option available to the SFPD.” The subsequent outcry by civil liberties groups caused the Board to amend its decision, limiting police use of the remote-controlled robots for tasks like search and rescue but not deadly force. Undeterred, police indicated at the February 1, 2023 police commission meeting that they are still interested in re-submitting the proposal to authorize police use of lethal force with department-issued robots.
In reiterating The Rutherford Institute’s concerns, Whitehead warned, “If these killer robots follow the same trajectory as militarized weapons, which, having been deployed to local police agencies as part of the Pentagon’s 1033 recycling program, are turning America into a battlefield, it’s just a matter of time before they become the first line of defense in interactions between police and members of the public.”
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.
The letters to the Board of Supervisors and the Police Commission are available at www.rutherford.org.