SFPD’s killer robots are off the table for now 

Police-robot-kneeling-handcuffed-Black-man, <strong>SFPD’s killer robots are off the table for now</strong> , Local News & Views
A police robot and kneeling, handcuffed Black man.

by People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, Oakland Bureau Chief

On Dec. 6, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors temporarily reversed its decision on a policy that would have allowed the San Francisco Police Department to use robots with lethal force, which they had voted on a week prior. Supervisor Dean Preston and Supervisor Hillary Ronen led the charge against this policy and hosted an anti-robot rally outside of City Hall that attracted a hundred or so people one day prior to this most recent vote. Board President Shamann Walton also attended and spoke out against the SFPD being given the ability to deploy lethal robots on its citizenry. 

“I think public outcry and the diligent organizing efforts of local groups changed what would have been a rubber stamping of the killer robot policy into a ban on deadly force by robots,” said Matt Guariglia, policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Some supervisors acted on a deeply felt belief that any situation deploying deadly force with robots is wrong, while others may have just been noticing that with this much public objection to the policy the language really should go into revision and through another round of public comment. But either way, we now have a ban on killer robots until the issue can be revisited and I hope that should it be brought back up in committee, the supervisors will re-assert the ban.”

Matt Guarigalia was one of the dozen or so speakers at the Dec. 5 anti-robot rally in front of San Francisco City Hall, organized by Supervisors Preston and Ronen. 

The SFPD employing killer robots “is not in line with making changes to address the disproportionate number of Black people and people of color that are typically on the receiving end when police are utilized. We should be focused on alternatives to force, de-escalation and community policing strategies instead of looking at more ways to incorporate lethal force,” stated San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton prior to the Dec. 6 vote.

San Francisco’s Black and Brown communities still remember and mourn the police murders of Gus Rugley, Mario Woods, Kenneth Harding, Idriss Stelley, Alex Nieto and far too many more. SFPD doesn’t need another lethal weapon.

“We are relieved that the supervisors changed course and banned killer robots, and we will do everything we can to make sure they remain banned,” said ACLU of Northern California Criminal Justice Director Yoel Haile. “This irresponsible policy would have exposed Black and Brown people to more danger and death at the hands of the police.”

“We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.” 

July 8, 2016, was the first time, according to police experts, that a police department in the United States deployed a lethal robot to murder a suspect, in the case of Dallas police murdering Micah X. Johnson. 

“The people of San Francisco have spoken loud and clear: There is no place for killer police robots in our city,” said Supervisor Dean Preston in a press release statement. “There have been more killings at the hands of police than any other year on record nationwide. We should be working on ways to decrease the use of force by local law enforcement, not giving them new tools to kill people.” 

When Mayor London Breed implemented a lockdown of San Francisco during the Covid pandemic in March of 2020, the first city in the U.S. to be locked down, the nation and the world followed. 

“This should be considered a win because the community was able to fully reverse an 8-to-3 vote authorizing deadly force by robots to an 8-to-3 vote to ban the practice until the policy can be revisited. This means that should the policy be revisited, any compromise the supervisors feel compelled to make with the police department will necessarily be much more restrictive than the initial bill, because the status quo in our city is now a ban on killer robots,” explained Matt Guariglia.

In September of ‘22 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted for Mayor Breed’s proposal, which allowed an ordinance where the SFPD could view 24 hours worth of outside footage from private cameras owned by any individual or business within the boundaries of San Francisco without a warrant. The supporting vote was 7 to 4. 

“The world was watching to see what San Francisco would do in this scenario. In a city that seems increasingly willing to give the police whatever powers they ask for regardless of how flimsy the use case is, the fact that armed robots are an uncrossable line in the sand for most people is a lesson other police departments will take note of. San Francisco’s ban on face recognition ignited a series of bans across the country and I hope those cities will also take note of this fight and do what they can to make sure they’re prepared when their police department asks for the same powers,” said Matt Guariglia.

“This fight isn’t over, but we are grateful that the board explicitly banned police robots with deadly force,” Supervisor Preston said. “I am calling on my colleagues to take heed of the powerful backlash and make sure this harmful policy is never approved – not today, not tomorrow, not ever.”

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau and is founder of his latest project, the Ministry of Information Podcast. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com and on Instagram.

This story was made possible by a grant from the California State Library’s #StopTheHate campaign to promote interracial dialogue and intervene in hate crimes, which have drastically increased against all communities of color, specifically Black people, since 2020. The Stop The Hate campaign is made possible with funding from CSL in partnership with the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs (CAPIAA). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by the SF Bay View do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the CSL, CAPIAA or the California government. Learn more at www.sfbayview.com/stopthehate or capiaa.ca.gov/stop-the-hate.