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Why it matters: A week ago, San Francisco officials gave the go-ahead to a rule change that would allow the local police department to use robots to kill suspects in extremely dangerous scenarios. The Board of Supervisors approved the measure with only token opposition in an 8-3 vote. Now the board has spun a 180.
In a second vote to determine whether officers can use lethal force with remote-controlled robots, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors effectively struck down the regulation in an 8-3 vote approving a ban on using robots lethally. The board must approve law enforcement rule changes twice before sending them to the mayor's office for final approval. The San Francisco Chronicle notes that the secondary vote is often considered a formality since it is highly unusual for the board to flip its initial decision.
Civil rights activists were up in arms last week when the rule first passed. Many viewed the move as appointing the San Francisco Police Department judge, jury, and executioner. The SFPD explained it would only use the tactic when civilians' or officers' lives were at imminent risk, and it had exhausted other avenues of de-escalation.
Now SFPD heads can either write up some public-pleasing concessions or accept a ban on robotic force.
However, the department's explanation did little to quell the outcry from San Francisco citizens. Opposing supervisors then threatened to turn the regulation changes into a ballot measure to allow the people of San Francisco to decide. That threat appears to have persuaded five supervisors to flip their opinions.
"The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city," commented Supervisor Dean Preston after Tuesday's vote. "[We] should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people."
Now the ball is back in the Rules Committee's court. The board's approved revision outright bans officers from using deadly robotic force. The SFPD can further revise the rule and resubmit it, perhaps adding more restrictions to alleviate public fears, or it can drop it and accept the board's ban. The Rules Committee will work on the draft over the next week.
The rule changes come in response to Califonia's AB481, which requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to annually submit detailed reports regarding the use of their military arsenals, including robots. These reports must include inventories of weaponry and explanations for their use.