San Francisco Police Can Now Kill People With Robots

Justin Sullivan / Staff via Getty

This Series explores surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights. made possible with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center.

The San Francisco Police Department can now legally kill people with robots. The Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to give the police that power on Tuesday, rebuffing critics who decried the further militarization of a domestic police force. 

The new rule will allow police to use robots “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.” The police characterize this standard as extremely high and only to be used in the most extreme circumstances, but it is the same standard that applies to human officers killing people. As previously reported by Motherboard and the local news site Mission Local, a line was added to a draft rule banning the use of killer robots but the police deleted it. 

The rule has alarmed privacy and civil rights activists in the city. “We have a very clear position that we do not think in a domestic policing context robots should ever be armed,” Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard earlier this week. “We really fear you’d be seeing these armed robots coming out to every protest on standby and that’s just a very dangerous situation.”

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors also approved a rule that allows police to livestream private video feeds. This rule also spurred a contentious debate around civil rights and policing, with a coalition of civil rights and privacy groups opposing the measure on the grounds that it was an unnecessary and extreme violation of people’s privacy likely to be abused particularly during First Amendment activities. Similar to the killer robot rule, it was billed as for use in extreme or special circumstances only but also as a way to curb the perception of rising crime. Advocates have repeatedly questioned how these measures can do both.

This article is part of State of Surveillance, made possible with the support of a grant from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The series will explore the development, deployment, and effects of surveillance and its intersection with race and civil rights.


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Aaron Gordon Emanuel Maiberg