SF police chief responds to Board's reversal on allowing robots' use of lethal force

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to reverse its previous decision that would have allowed San Francisco police to arm robots with deadly force in limited situations.

The previous vote had created a big debate in the community and some protestors carrying signs opposing robots filled the Board meeting Tuesday.

"I felt increasingly uncomfortable with our vote," said Supervisor Gordon Mar, who was one of five who changed their votes, "I do not think removing the immediacy of humanity in taking a life and putting it behind a remote control is a reasonable step for our municipal police force."

The Supervisors decided to put on the brakes and send the issue back to committee.

"I think sending this back to the committee to allow all of us some time to consider and offer language is needed," said Supervisor Connie Chan.

"I think my colleagues made the wrong decision today," said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, "The robots we're talking about are robots that the San Francisco Police Department has had for more than a decade. They've never been used to deliver lethal force."

"Conceivably we would attach an explosive to one of the robots and send it in. That's not how the robots would generally be used it would only be in this worse case scenario," said Mandelman.

"That is an alarming position for the city to take and an alarming power to give to the police department," said Supervisor Dean Preston, "The public has really not had a chance to really weigh in specifically on this issue of police allowing robot...if the city is serious about this policy, then the Board needs to send it back to the committee so the public can testify in support or opposition at a hearing."

The issue of robots arose from Assembly 481 which requires all California law enforcement departments to submit a list of military-style equipment and details on the use of the equipment.

San Francisco Police Chief William Scott says he's committed to transparency and hopes the Supervisors will reopen dialogue and eventually allow some expansion of robots' capabilities.

Chief Scott says the department has 17 robots right now, and some of them are equipped to deliver flash bang explosives used to breach doors or dismantle robots. Those explosives, he says, are intermediate grade force, but do have the potential of delivering lethal force.

The San Francisco Police Department's suggestion was to substitute language saying "Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person," and instead state "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."

"We want to make sure that all questions are answered as much as we can do that," said Chief Scott.

Chief Scott said the robots are operated by remote control using a camera that helps the operator view the scene, but it does not record the situation as a police officer's body camera would to provide evidence of any incident.

Chief Scott said he can't think of a situation during his time in San Francisco where he would have authorized a robot's use of lethal force, but wants to preserve that potential, citing an example in Dallas where a bomb squad robot was used.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: San Francisco supervisors approve SFPD plan to give robots 'deadly-force option'

"We're not planning to equip our robotic equipment with guns, machine guns, or shotguns or any of that stuff. This is a very rare instance as it was in Dallas Tesxas a few years ago where people have died or are dying and we can't get to that person without losing additional lives," said Chief Scott.

In that 2016 Dallas shooting, an Army Reserve veteran opened fire, killing five police officers. Police used a bomb squad robot to detonate a device near the shooter, killing him.

"If this is a tool, just like they used it in 2016 in Dallas you know God forbid we'd come to that again, then at least we would have the option," said Tracy McCray, President of the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

McCray says it is important that the board and the public to take more time to understand the issue.

"I, for one, would just like them to go back and get it right. Take the policy, read it over, and decide what you want to do with it," said McCray.

If the Rules Committee decides to take up the issue again, it likely will not be until January.