The move follows an emotionally charged debate that reflected divisions on the politically liberal board over support for law enforcement.

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.
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. (AP Archive)

Supervisors in San Francisco have voted to give city police the ability to use potentially lethal, remote-controlled robots in emergency situations.

After a debate that ran more than two hours on Tuesday, the vote was 8-3, with the majority agreeing to grant police the option despite strong objections from civil liberties and other police oversight groups.

Opponents said the authority would lead to the further militarisation of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities.

The San Francisco Police Department, which currently has a dozen functioning ground robots used to assess bombs or provide eyes in low visibility situations, said it does not have pre-armed robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns.

But the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate, or disorient violent, armed, or dangerous suspect” when lives are at stake, spokesperson Allison Maxie said in a statement.

“Robots equipped in this manner would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent lives,” she said.

Ability to kill remotely

Supervisors amended the proposal to specify that officers could use robots only after using alternative force or de-escalation tactics, or concluding they would not be able to subdue the suspect through those alternative means.

Only a limited number of high-ranking officers could authorise the use of robots as a deadly force option.

The San Francisco Public Defender's office sent a letter on 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 authorisation, 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.

Board President Shamann Walton, who voted against the proposal, pushed back, saying it 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.”

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies