Is Robocop to become a reality? San Francisco police seek approval to kill suspects using robots

A man is disarmed by a robot in Arizona  (AP)
A man is disarmed by a robot in Arizona (AP)

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) is seeking approval for officers to use robots to kill suspects.

As part of a divisive policy proposal, the SFPD maintains that its troop of around a dozen droids will only be used as lethal options where there is a life-threatening risk to civilians and officers, and no alternatives are feasible.

The draft policy, which defines how the SFPD is allowed to use its military-style weapons, is heading for vote by the city and county’s Board of Supervisors next week, according to Mission Local. A version of this draft policy was unanimously accepted by the rules committee last week and will come before the full board on November 29.

It previously received pushback from some members concerning its language on robot force. Aaron Peskin, chair of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, previously tried to curb the extent of the policy by inserting the sentence, “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person.”

The police reportedly struck out the suggestion in a subsequent draft and replaced it with language that set out its authority to use lethal force with robots.

“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 outweigh any other force option available to SFPD,” the proposal read.

Are we seeing Robocop come to life? (Handout)
Are we seeing Robocop come to life? (Handout)

It adds: “It is particularly important that officers apply proportionality and critical decision-making when encountering a subject who is armed with a weapon other than a firearm.”

While reminiscent of the brutal Eighties sci-fi Robocop, the fact is that the current crop of droids utilized by police are far from autonomous killing machines. In the UK, police-controlled robots are mainly used for bomb disposal and to inspect areas and vehicles. The same goes for the Remotec model listed in the SFPD’s equipment policy, which is described as a heavy-duty robot that has stair climbing ability and an arm capable of lifting 65lbs.

But, there are ways to modify the bots that indicate how they could be used with lethal force. Notably, the SFPD’s droid can be loaded with 12-gauge shotgun shells currently used to detonate bombs from afar. The same droid was armed with an an explosive and used to kill a suspect in Dallas in 2016 after a shootout had left five polices officers dead and several ohers wounded, demonstrating how the machine can turn deadly. At the time, the Dallas Police Department said the robot was deployed “as a last resort, to deliver an explosion device to save the lives of officers and citizens.”

Other robotic equipment mentioned in the SFPD’s proposal includes a rugged bot that can help its operator investigate dangerous material from a safe distance using video and audio surveillance, and a throwable micro-bot that enables operators to view indoor or outdoor environments.

Meanwhile, New York police briefly used a robot dog to scour crime scenes and assist in hostage situations, before ditching it due to a privacy backlash. The French Army has also previously used the four-legged machine, known as Spot, which businesses can purchase from tech company Boston Dynamics, during training exercises.