Lessons from San Francisco’s killer robot debate

By John Lindsay-Poland, Jennifer Tu

In November, San Francisco police proposed a new city policy that would have authorized the lethal use of robots. Codifying police policies as city law requires elected officials to vote twice. At the first reading, eight of eleven supervisors voted to approve the policy, spawning nationwide media attention and grassroots opposition. The public outcry grew so strong that, in a rare reversal, five supervisors switched their stance at the second reading, voting 8-3 to ban killer robots, affirming that it’s simply too dangerous to give the police this power. We were relieved by the reversal and grateful for everyone who spoke out.

Between 2013 and 2021, Black people were 9.7 times more likely and Latinx people were 4.3 times more likely to be killed by the SFPD than white people. Robots would make this problem worse, as they allow officers to kill impersonally and at a distance, increasing the chances that lethal force will be used.

The entire controversy and ultimate backtracking by the Board of Supervisors begs the question, how did we get here in the first place? How could San Francisco, a purported “progressive” city, authorize deadly police robots? And how do we stop this policy, or something similar, from returning?

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) was involved in this process since the beginning. For months, we advocated against giving the SFPD lethal robots and other military weaponry. We’ve also been working across the state, providing analysis of police policies to community members and local officials on how to use a new state law, AB 481, to increase transparency and accountability.

Along the way, we’ve seen certain patterns emerge. What follows is a collection of the lessons we’ve learned.

The police have been quietly militarizing for decades. To contest it, we need transparency.

The immediate vehicle for surfacing the lethal robot proposal was AB 481, which requires police and sheriffs across the state to publish inventories and create use policies for militarized equipment, including tear gas, assault rifles, armored vehicles, drones, and robots.

Like every other law enforcement agency across the state, San Francisco PD was required to propose use policies for existing military equipment. These policies must be considered, approved, or rejected by civilian elected officials in a public hearing open to public comment.

Some observers argue that AB 481 is helping to normalize militarized policing. But the police have been steadily militarizing for decades without sufficient resistance. The new California law is making that militarization more transparent - which is a necessary step in contesting it. Without it, killer robots wouldn’t be banned in San Francisco.

Absent strong community input, most elected officials avoid limiting police powers.

AB 481 was created to empower elected civilian leaders to decide where to draw the line against militarization of policing. Yet across California, in both deep red territories in Orange County and the Central Valley, as well as in nominally liberal districts like Los Angeles, that rarely happens. Without opposition from advocates, most lawmakers avoid pushing back on police proposals and narratives, even when they don’t make sense, fulfill community standards, or meet the minimum requirements of the new law.

That’s what happened in San Francisco. At first, the supervisors were ready to grant the SFPD permission to kill with robots. But after advocates rang the alarm and local press took notice, a chorus of opposition emerged. And once the community spoke up, so did elected officials.

The same principle proved true in Santa Cruz, Richmond, Oakland, and other communities that organized to limit police powers. Community activism led elected officials to call for increased transparency and accountability through restrictions, reporting expectations, and withdrawal of weapons.

Police propose ambiguous wide-open policies that empower them to use weapons as they choose.

AB 481 requires that policies define authorized use, because clearly setting limits on the situations in which militarized equipment is authorized can better protect the public’s safety, welfare, and civil rights.

But law enforcement has consistently focused on who within the police department is authorized to use weaponry, instead of whether military weaponry should be used at all. As a result, they always return to internal authorization, rather than community-defined standards.

For example, SFPD’s earliest proposed robot policy did not say how robots were to be used. By not specifying, SFPD quietly retained options for use of force by robots. SFPD’s “compromise” for authorizing killer robots was to name who in SFPD could authorize deadly robot force. But doing so simply creates a perfunctory check while still granting police the full power to authorize a remote-controlled killing.

In other jurisdictions, the ambiguity of some policies would permit police to launch a tear gas canister aimed at someone’s face, or openly carry assault rifles at a First Amendment assembly protest against police violence.

Resist scare tactics and unlikely hypotheticals. Focus on the impacts of police violence and military weaponry.

Electeds need community input to deconstruct police narratives for militarization that focus on worst-case hypotheticals and ignore how military gear is commonly used. Usually, we see police use military equipment to serve warrants and other operations that disproportionately impact and even target Black and Brown people. SFPD was quick to cite notorious massacres, such as the mass shooting in Las Vegas, as a justification for deadly robots, but when questioned, it was clear that lethal robots would not have been a safe or effective response.

Our officials need community voices to prioritize community safety and healing over warrior and fear-based approaches. Community coalitions and media coverage often play critical roles. Many San Francisco supervisors heard community feedback between votes, and those who were already inclined towards banning killer robots got the public support they needed to change their votes.

Stay vigilant.

Police killer robots could very easily have quietly become law in San Francisco. Wherever we live, we need to stay vigilant to what laws are being created and take timely action to support elected officials in making the right decisions. We can do this by challenging militarized fear narratives, asking pointed questions, and sharing the values we believe in.

This blog post was originally published by the ACLU of Northern California