San Francisco Lawmakers Think It Might Be OK For Cops To Deploy Robots To Kill People

from the [extremely-Jim-Morrison-voice]-there's-a-killer-at-the-door dept

Lots of people like to pretend California is home to certifiable Communists — a socialist collective masquerading as a state. But California is not beholden to socialist ideals. It has its own dictatorial ideological bent, one that’s only slightly tamed by its election of liberal leaders.

Every move towards the left is greeted by an offset to the right. If anything, California is the Land of Compromise. Ideological shifts are short-lived. What really lasts are the things the California government does that give the government more power, even as they ensure the electorate that their concerns have been heard.

Case in point: San Francisco. In early 2019, the city passed a ban on facial recognition tech use by government agencies. This move placed it on the “left,” at least in terms of policing the police. (The law was amended shortly thereafter when it became clear government employees were unable to validate their identity on city-issued devices.)

Communist paradise indeed. But no, not really. San Francisco’s lawmakers may have had some good ideas about trimming the government’s surveillance powers, but those good ideas were soon compromised by law enforcement. And those compromises have been greeted with silence.

In May of this year, cops were caught accessing autonomous vehicle data in the hopes of obtaining evidence in ongoing investigations. A truly autonomous vehicle creates nothing but third-party data, so there was little need to worry about Fourth Amendment implications. But still it seems a city concerned with government overreach would express a little more concern about this cop opportunism.

Nothing happened in response to this revelation. Instead, four months later, city lawmakers approved on-demand access to private security cameras, reasoning that cops deserved this access because crime was still a thing. Mayor London Breed justified the move towards increased authoritarianism in a [checks notes] Medium post:

We also need to make sure our police officers have the proper tools to protect public safety responsibly. The police right now are barred from accessing or monitoring live video unless there are “exigent circumstances”, which are defined as events that involve an imminent danger of serious physical injury or death. If this high standard is not met, the Police can’t use live video feed, leaving our neighborhoods and retailers vulnerable.

These are the reasons why I authored this legislation. It will authorize police to use non-City cameras and camera networks to temporarily live monitor activity during significant events with public safety concerns, investigations relating to active misdemeanor and felony violations, and investigations into officer misconduct. 

When the going gets tough, the elected toughs get chickenshit. All it took to generate carte blanche access to private security cameras was some blips on the crime radar. Whatever gains were made with the facial recognition tech ban were undone by the city’s unwillingness to stand by its principles when isolated incidents (hyped into absurdity by news broadcasters) made certain residents feel ways about stuff.

The news cycle may have cycled, but the desire to subject San Francisco to extensive government intrusion remains. If the cops can’t have facial recognition tech, maybe they should be allowed to kill people by proxy. It’s a super-weird take on law enforcement, but one that has been embraced by apparently super-weird city legislators, as Will Jarrett reports for Mission Local.

policy proposal heading for Board of Supervisors approval next week would explicitly authorize San Francisco police to kill suspects using robots.

The new policy, which defines how the SFPD is allowed to use its military-style weapons, was put together by the police department. Over the past several weeks, it has been scrutinized by supervisors Aaron Peskin, Rafael Mandelman and Connie Chan, who together comprise the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee.

Yikes. Turning residents into Sarah Connor isn’t a wise use of government power. Giving police additional deadly force powers is unlikely to heal the immense rift that has developed as cops continue to kill people with disturbing frequency, all while enjoying the sort of immunity that comes with the territory.

Attempts to mitigate the new threat authorized by this proposal were undermined by the San Francisco PD, which apparently thinks killing people with modified Johnny Fives is a good idea:

Peskin, chair of the committee, initially attempted to limit the SFPD’s authority over the department’s robots by inserting the sentence, “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person.”

The following week, the police struck out his suggestion with a thick red line.

It was replaced by language that codifies the department’s authority to use lethal force via robots: “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD.” 

The edit may seem all pointy-eared-Spock logical when taken at face value. But it isn’t. What cops believe poses an “imminent threat” to officers is so far outside the norm expected by “reasonable” citizens, it makes this edit meaningless. Cops are allowed to make highly-subjective judgment calls — the sort of thing that often leads to unarmed people (especially minorities) being killed by law enforcement officers. Add this right-optional autonomy to autonomous killing machines and you’re asking for the sort of trouble residents will be forced to subsidize as the city settles lawsuits triggered by cops who think a person’s mere existence is enough of a threat to justify deadly force.

Adding this to the arsenal of rights-optional weapons deployed by the SFPD ushers in a new era where cops can be judge, jury, and executioner. I mean, in many cases they already are. But this adds a level of Judge Dredd-adjacent dystopia where cops can try to claim it wasn’t them but rather the one-armed man robot. The San Francisco legislator should kill this bill deader than the residents the SFPD kills. The “imminent threat” justification is too vague and too easily abused to allow officers to absolve their own guilt by allowing a robotic assistant to perform killings on their behalf.

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Comments on “San Francisco Lawmakers Think It Might Be OK For Cops To Deploy Robots To Kill People”

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21 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

This sounds to my non-lawyer mind like a conspiracy[1] to (slowly) commit mass murder.

[1] As in: several people worked together to engage in an illegal activity. AFAIK murder is not actually legal, even for police, it’s just most courts lack the balls to press it through (failings on juries, prosecutor, and judges). IIRC conspiracy doesn’t actually require secrecy (though I could totally be mistaken).

Anonymous Coward says:

“Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD.” 

Every stand-off ever, hostages or not. Of course, that leads to another movie quote. Who cares about hostages when you’ve a shiny new killbot that you’ve official permission to use?

ECA (profile) says:

Police force

Start a service to protect the rich.
Then get the poor to understand that these FEW people, can and WILL help you when needed.
So lets get rid of your guns and weapons.
The only ones with guns and weapons Should be the police.

How fast can in incident happen?
How fast can a Officer get to you?
An officer can NOT do anything until something happens.
Officers are NOT taught the laws. They dont know where they stand.
Laws are created to Protect cops. How far do you want to Over protect an person who dont know the laws?
Give the people the ability to Protect themselves, and assist the law.
Most common people dont know the laws either, There are To many laws.

Give a New Lawyer a break, Give them a job. The New police officer is a lawyer. He can tall us the law and be CORRECT about the law.
Maybe

Anonymous Coward says:

But California is not beholden to socialist ideals. It has its own dictatorial ideological bent, one that’s only slightly tamed by its election of liberal leaders.

How exactly are the two ideas in conflict? In practice, socialism has always resulted in dictatorial, totalitarian hellholes, from the USSR and China to Venezuela and San Francisco.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

That’s actually communism. Specifically, the Leninist-Stalinist versions and the Maoist versions.

While you are right in saying the Soviet method was a way to fast-track states into totalitarian shitpits, capitalism, too, has created similar results.

And California is far, far right, as is most of America. The commies aren’t a major power bloc anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That’s actually communism. Specifically, the Leninist-Stalinist versions and the Maoist versions.

Have you ever actually read Marx? He used the words “communism” and “socialism” interchangeably. Trying to claim they’re different things is revisionist history.

While you are right in saying the Soviet method was a way to fast-track states into totalitarian shitpits, capitalism, too, has created similar results.

Communism: famines, repression, and corpses measured in the hundreds of millions.

Capitalism: abundance, flourishing, and prosperity undreamt of throughout human history, to the point where even “the poor” in America today have a higher standard of living than kings of not-so-ancient days, higher even in many regards than more recent “royalty” such as John Rockefeller.

Yup. Totally producing similar results there.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Capitalism: abundance, flourishing, and prosperity undreamt of throughout human history, to the point where even “the poor” in America today have a higher standard of living than kings of not-so-ancient days, higher even in many regards than more recent “royalty” such as John Rockefeller.

The price of insulin⁠—a drug required by many diabetics to stay alive⁠—is so high under American capitalism that the government refuses to do anything other than wag its finger at Big Pharma and Big Pharma refuses to do anything that would cut into its profits. No individual American working a single full-time job at the federal minimum wage can afford housing on their salary. Major corporations keep seeing record profits thanks to wages remaining stagnant and prices continually getting higher. And that’s to say nothing of the water crises in cities like Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi.

But sure, tell me how much better life is in America for its poorest citizens only because they’re not all visibly homeless and visibly dying of starvation. I insist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Capitalism: abundance, flourishing, and prosperity undreamt of throughout human history, to the point where even “the poor” in America today have a higher standard of living than kings of not-so-ancient days, higher even in many regards than more recent “royalty” such as John Rockefeller.

China: all that, plus “ELIMINATED POVERTY!!!” (spoiler: no they did not, they probably changed their definition of poverty)

India: massive underclass that has yet to be uplifted to a less shit standard of living, plus under Modi, it’gonna be an autocratic shithole politically.

The Phillipines: Oh, right, murdered their poor in a drug war. And went on to elect the idiot son of a mad dictator and a Chinese toady. The poor still live like shit.

Cuba: At least they have Universal Healthcare… still not a good place to be politically.

How’s that copium treating you?

Cowardly and Anonymous says:

I haven’t yet seen sufficient mention of the fact that using a remote-control drone to kill heavily obfuscates the individual who pulled the trigger/pushed the button/ran his butt over the controls like that guy from the first Despicable Me. Makes it far more difficult to hold an officer responsible for even the most egregious of abuses, as it requires cooperation from the police department in question to determine who was at the controls. Therefore, a victim cannot easily attempt to file a civil suit against the aggressor who violated their rights, the state cannot easily name the individual responsible in a criminal case, and even complaints and the like cannot help seek remedy against the actual problem.

In short, the department need not claim “the robot did it” to derail all manner of attempts at justice.

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