The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can police use robots to kill? San Francisco voted yes.

A police officer operates one of his department's bomb-disposal robots in Garland, Tex., in 2018. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News/AP)
4 min

Six years ago, police in Dallas were forced to improvise when a sniper killed five officers and began an hours-long standoff.

Unable to approach the shooter, officers used a robot with an extending arm to guide a pound of C-4 explosive toward him. Then they detonated their makeshift bomb, killing the shooter.

In the aftermath, experts were stunned. The incident sparked a debate over whether law enforcement officials should be allowed to use robots to administer deadly force.

On Tuesday, San Francisco told its police they could.

After a heated debate, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to pass a policy that would allow officers to use ground-based robots to kill “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and officers cannot subdue the threat after using alternative force options or de-escalation tactics.” The measure must pass a second vote at a meeting next week and ultimately be approved by the mayor before becoming city law.

The policy, which was first proposed in September, was amended to include the provision allowing lethal force at the request of the San Francisco Police Department. An earlier draft set out that “robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person,” but the SFPD struck out the line and replaced it. It was amended once more during Tuesday’s board meeting to add that one of three senior police leaders must authorize such actions. Mission Local, a nonprofit newsroom in San Francisco, first reported on the department’s proposal.

The policy will pertain to a fleet of ground-based robots that the SFPD already possesses for reconnaissance, bomb disposal and rescue operations, including wheeled bomb-disposal robots with extending arms similar to the one used by Dallas officers in 2016. They are all unmanned and remotely piloted.

The SFPD does not possess armed robots, department spokesperson Robert Rueca wrote to The Washington Post, and does not plan to outfit its robots with firearms. He described a scenario in “extreme circumstances” similar to the one that played out in Dallas, in which a robot could be equipped with explosives to breach a fortified structure or “contact, incapacitate, or disorient” a dangerous suspect without risking the life of an officer.

San Francisco law previously took no position on law enforcement’s use of robots to administer deadly force. Such action would have fallen under the police department’s broader policy governing use of force, Rueca said.

Some supervisors in the San Francisco board meeting cast the policy as a necessary move to empower police after several mass shootings across the country. But the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, in a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors, said the policy was “dehumanizing and militaristic.” Opponents of the measure on the board argued that it would sow distrust within communities and not necessarily save lives.

“Most law enforcement weapons are used against people of color,” board president Shamann Walton (D) said at the meeting. “I’m really just stunned that we’re here talking about this.”

Adam Bercovici, a law enforcement expert and former Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant, told The Post that while policies for robotic lethal force must be carefully written, they could be useful in rare situations. He referenced an active-shooter scenario like the one Dallas officers encountered.

“If I was in charge, and I had that capability, it wouldn’t be the first on my menu,” he said. “But it would be an option if things were really bad.”

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, worried that San Francisco could instead end up setting a dangerous precedent.

“In my knowledge, this would be the first city to take this step of passing a law authorizing killer robots,” Cahn told The Post.

Cahn expressed concern that the legislation would lead other departments to push for similar provisions, or even to the development of more weaponized robots. In the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde, Tex., the police equipment company Axon announced plans to develop drones equipped with Tasers to incapacitate school shooters but canned the idea after nine members of the company’s artificial-intelligence ethics advisory board resigned in protest.

“Once we see one department taking this step as publicly as San Francisco, it would open the floodgates, I fear,” Cahn said.

The Board of Supervisors will hear the policy for a second vote next Tuesday before it goes to the mayor for approval.