The Ethical Implications of San Francisco Police Being Allowed to Use Lethal Robots

Story Highlights
  • Implementing the Policy
  • Ethical Considerations
  • Capabilities of the Robots
  • Potential Implications for the future of law enforcement

In restricted emergency cases, San Francisco police will be permitted to employ lethal robots, according to a controversial new policy authorized by San Francisco city supervisors.

Critics, including a minority of the board, vehemently opposed the policy because it can be exploited and allow cops to kill too easily.

Implementing the Policy

Police chiefs in San Francisco stated they want the right to use robots with lethal force during exceedingly rare circumstances against aggressive criminals such as mass killers or suicide bombers.

Supervisors approved the policy by a vote of 8 to 3 after a heated discussion. They adopted an amendment requiring one of two high-ranking SFPD officials to authorize the employment of a lethal robot in practice.

Ethical Considerations

While the department stated it had no intentions to outfit robots with a gun, the robots in its arsenal might be armed with explosive charges to penetrate structures harboring violent suspects or used to contact or incapacitate dangerous people “who constitute a risk of loss of life to law enforcement”.

Capabilities of the Robots

Some robots in the department’s inventory, such as the Remotec F5A, can climb stairs, lift more than 85 pounds, conquer curbs, investigate biohazard conditions, and self-right after being overturned.

The first known case of U.S. law enforcement employing a robot with lethal force happened in 2016 when Dallas police used a robot equipped with an explosive charge to kill someone who had gunned down five police officers.

Potential Implications for the future of law enforcement

Nonetheless, some supervisors remained skeptical that police need the unusual power to kill with a robot. “This is a local police department protecting us.  We are not equipping the United States military,” a supervisor stated at a board meeting. There is a significant potential for exploitation and abuse of this military-grade technology. The main concern is the already high levels of police brutality and the possibility of suspects becoming further dehumanized by officers.

One supervisor unsuccessfully attempted to change the policy to require the police to exhaust all non-lethal measures before employing a lethal robot. Later, a successful and less stringent amendment was offered, allowing police to deploy a robot to kill a suspect if they have attempted other de-escalation techniques or determined that they would be unable to subdue the threat through other means.

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