Police sometimes use deadly force. Larger police departments have robots capable of killing people. A new California law is forcing a discussion on whether police departments should be allowed to use robots to kill people.
The Oakland Police Department recently proposed arming remote-control robots with shotgun shells, then paused its request amid public backlash. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is considering a similar request from the San Francisco Police Department.
The California law, AB 481, requires every police force in the state to draft clear policies on using its military-style weapons, from armored vehicles to robots. Local authorities can reject or accept these proposed guidelines.
The San Francisco PD has 12 working robots — some of which can be equipped with lethal weapons — but its proposals did not mention them, so city supervisor Aaron Peskin added the line: "Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person." The police crossed that out and wrote in: "Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD." Peskin agreed that language can go to a vote of the full board.
The proposal for police to use killer robots on civilians wasn't universally embraced. "We are living in a dystopian future, where we debate whether the police may use robots to execute citizens without a trial, jury, or judge," civil rights lawyer Tifanei Moyer told Mission Local. The idea also grabbed national attention, including a story on NPR News Monday afternoon.
On Monday evening, the SFPD clarified that it "does not own or operate robots outfitted with lethal force options" and "has no plans to outfit robots with any type of firearm," but "as an intermediate force option, robots could potentially be equipped with explosive charges" to breach buildings and "incapacitate or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous" suspects. Explosive charges could be lethal, SFPD spokeswoman Allison Maxie conceded, but "robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives."
Ryan Calo, a professor and robot expert at the University of Washington, told NPR he understands why police departments might want to use killer robots — as the Dallas Police Department did in 2016 — and said armed robots could actually keep suspects safer than armed police. Still, he said, "we have to ask ourselves do we want to be in a society where police kill people with robots? It feels so deeply dehumanizing and militaristic."