By Mike Maharrey
Under intense pressure from grassroots activists, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors reversed course and banned killer robots in the city. The San Francisco Police Department’s plan to arm robots came to light under a police militarization transparency law passed last year.
The SFPD owns 12 functioning robots used primarily for bomb disposal and reconnaissance in dangerous situations. The department acquired the robots between 2011 and 2017. According to an AP report, some of the robots were purchased with federal funds.
None of the robots came equipped with weapons, but the police department wanted to option to deploy robots equipped with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspects” in what they consider to be life-threatening situations.
Until last year, any such policy changes would have been made unilaterally by the SFPD. But, because of a law passed by the California legislature in late 2021, SFPD was required to not only give public notice, but get approval first.
Under AB481 sponsored by Asm. David Chiu (D) and a coalition of Democrats, law enforcement agencies must develop a detailed military equipment use policy and present it in an open meeting before obtaining military equipment. After the public meeting, the local governing body can either approve or deny the acquisition. Law enforcement agencies must also get local government approval to continue using existing military equipment and to change any existing use policy.
Because of the law, the San Francisco Police Department was forced to reveal its plans to arm robots, and get approval for the policy change from the board of supervisors. This brought it a lot of attention, both locally and nationally.
On Nov. 29, the board initially approved new language in the robot use policy by an 8-3 vote with a final vote scheduled for Dec. 6. The new policy stipulated that “robots will only be used 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.”
News that the city had authorized “killer robots” set off a firestorm of opposition. A large coalition quickly mobilized in hopes of stopping authorization on the final vote. Within just a few days, 40 organizations, including the Tenth Amendment Center, signed onto a coalition letter opposing the policy.
The backlash was so strong that the board quickly reversed the decision Tuesday, sending some of the proposed policy back to a committee for further review. The 8-3 vote in support of the “killer robots” was quickly flipped when the Board voted unanimously to explicitly ban the use of robots in such a fashion for now.
But the battle isn’t over. The board sent the issue back to the Rules Committee for further review and public comment. That means the full board could still approve a revised policy allowing robots to use lethal force in the future.
For the time being, however, despite SFPD’s wishes, they are currently banned from arming robots with a deadly force option.
The Board’s surprising u-turn underscores the power of sunlight coupled with dedicated grassroots activism.
The law enacted by AB481 is relatively narrow in scope and doesn’t do anything to stop the militarization of police. But it does make the process of acquiring military-grade equipment more transparent. Prior to the enactment of this law, law enforcement agencies in California often acquired military equipment without anybody even knowing, much less approving it.
The vote was the result of a new state law that requires police departments to inventory equipment including certain guns, grenades, armored vehicles and battering rams and to seek explicit approval for their use. So far, only San Francisco and Oakland have discussed lethal robots as part of that law. Oakland police wanted to arm robots with shotguns but backed down in the face of public opposition, instead opting for pepper spray.
Of course, transparency alone doesn’t stop government actions. Oftentimes, government bodies simply rubber-stamp police requests. But when grassroots activists get involved, they can drive change, as we just saw with the killer robot policy.
Transparency sets the stage. It provides a means for the community to know exactly what its government is doing. As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best antiseptic. But ultimately, substantive changes in policy require human action.
Initially, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was set to rubber-stamp law enforcement’s request for killer robots – even with public disclosure. But when activists got wind of the proposal and took action, they were able to exert enough pressure on government officials to reverse the bad policy.
Without AB481, nobody would have known about the killer robots. But without the concerted effort of concerned individuals pressuring government officials, they would have gotten killer robots anyway.