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San Francisco votes to end policy that allows police to deploy lethal robots

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SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco regulators voted Tuesday to put the brakes on a controversial policy that would have allowed police to use robots for lethal force. Only days after their approval of the plan, the course was reversed, sparking fierce backlash and warnings about the militarization and computerization of policing.

The Supervisory Board voted unanimously to explicitly prohibit the use of robots in this way for the time being. But they returned the matter to a committee for further discussion and could vote in the future to allow police to use robots in a lethal manner in limited cases.

The board voted last week to allow the use of deadly robots in extreme conditions. Police said it had no plans to arm the robots with weapons, but wanted the ability to place explosives on them and then use them to contact, disable or disorient dangerous or armed suspects when lives are in danger to be.

The first vote put the famously liberal city at the center of a debate over the future of technology and policing, with some saying arming robots was a step too close to something you’d see in a dystopian sci-fi movie. While robot technology for policing is more widely available, so are departments across the country rarely used it to confront or kill suspects.

Three regulators who rejected the policy from the outset joined dozens of protesters outside City Hall on Monday to urge the board to change course. They chanted and held signs with phrases like “We’ve all seen that movie… No Killer Robots.”

Supervisor Dean Preston was among them, and on Tuesday he told colleagues that the public had not been given enough time to voice their concerns over such a pressing issue.

“The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city,” he said in a statement after the vote. “We should be working on ways to reduce the use of force by local law enforcement, not give them new tools to kill people.”

The vote was the result of a new state law requiring police departments to inventory equipment, including certain weapons, grenades, armored vehicles and battering rams, and seek explicit approval for their use. So far, only San Francisco and Oakland have discussed deadly robots as part of that law. Oakland police wanted to arm robots with shotguns, but backed down despite public opposition, opting instead for pepper spray.

Some San Francisco officials wanted to continue allowing robots to use lethal force in certain cases, arguing that nothing substantial had changed to warrant a turnaround. But the vote to advance broader police equipment policies — including the ban on deadly robots — passed unanimously.

It still allows police to use robots to monitor potentially dangerous scenes, leaving officers behind.

“Having robots that have eyes and ears and can take down bombs, which happens from time to time, is something we want the police to do as we continue this very controversial discussion,” said supervisor Aaron Peskin, who put forward a motion last year of a week on the use of robots.

The new policy still needs a vote to take effect.

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