Police in San Francisco will be allowed to use remote-controlled robots that can kill, despite fierce opposition from civil liberties groups.
Opponents of the move said it would lead to the further militarisation of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities.
The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) says it does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns.
However the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect” when lives are at stake, SFPD spokesperson Allison Maxie said.
“Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” she said.
The police force currently has a dozen ground robots, used to assess bombs or provide reconnaissance in low visibility environments.
However explicit authorisation to use robots as a type of force was required after a new California law went into effect this year requiring police and sheriffs departments to inventory military-grade equipment and seek approval for their use.
A federal program has long dispensed grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, bayonets, armoured vehicles and other surplus military equipment to help local law enforcement – a source of significant controversy.
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Debate on Tuesday ran more than two hours with members on both sides accusing the other of fearmongering.
Board president Shamann Walton, who voted against the proposal, said doing so made him not anti-police, but “pro people of colour”.
“We continuously are being asked to do things in the name of increasing weaponry and opportunities for negative interaction between the police department and people of colour,” he said. “This is just one of those things.”
The San Francisco Public Defender’s office sent a letter Monday to the board saying that granting police “the ability to kill community members remotely” goes against the city’s progressive values.
The office wanted the board to reinstate language barring police from using robots against any person in an act of force.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who voted in favour of the policy, said he was troubled by rhetoric painting the police department as untrustworthy and dangerous.
“I think there’s larger questions raised when progressives and progressive policies start looking to the public like they are anti-police,” he said.
On the other side of the San Francisco Bay, the Oakland Police Department has dropped a similar proposal after public backlash.
The first time a robot was used to deliver explosives in the US was in 2016, when Dallas police sent in an armed robot that killed a holed-up sniper who had killed five officers in an ambush.