Police in San Francisco will be allowed to kill suspects using remote controlled robots, in a landmark ruling which campaign groups say sets a dangerous precedent.
The Golden Gate city will become the first in America to legally authorise the use of robots to administer deadly force after an emotionally charged debate and vote by city supervisors.
The San Francisco Police Department said it does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns, but could deploy remote controlled machines equipped with explosive charges "to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect" when lives are at stake, according to spokesperson Allison Maxie.
"Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives," she said.
'It's definitely not an easy discussion'
The first time a robot was used to deliver explosives in the US was in Texas, in 2016, when Dallas police sent in an armed robot that killed a holed-up sniper who had killed five officers in an ambush.
San Francisco police currently have a dozen functioning ground robots used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low visibility situations. They have never been used to deliver an explosive device, police officials said.
However, explicit authorisation was required after a new California law went into effect this year requiring police and sheriffs departments to create an inventory of their military-grade equipment and seek approval for their use.
Supervisor Connie Chan, a member of the committee that forwarded the proposal to the full board, said she understood concerns over use of force but that "according to state law, we are required to approve the use of this equipment. So here we are, and it's definitely not an easy discussion."
The San Francisco public defender's office argued 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, but failed in their bid.
San Francisco could 'set dangerous precedent'
Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told the Washington Post that San Francisco could instead end up setting a dangerous precedent.
“In my knowledge, this would be the first city to take this step of passing a law authorising killer robots,” he said.
He expressed concerns that the legislation could lead to other police departments enacting similar laws or even private companies developing more weaponised robots.
“Once we see one department taking this step as publicly as San Francisco, it would open the floodgates, I fear,” Mr Cahn said.
The Board of Supervisors will hear the policy for a second vote next Tuesday before it goes to the mayor for approval.