On The Front Lines
Rutherford Institute Opposes Proposal to Allow Police to Expand Their Power to Kill Through the Use of Armed Robots
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — The Rutherford Institute has voiced its opposition to a proposal that would give police the power to kill using armed robots. In a letter to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Rutherford Institute attorneys are urging Supervisors to reject a portion of a proposed policy on police use of military equipment which would allow police to employ deadly force through remotely-controlled, armed robots.
“Police in America are already dressed in the trappings of war, drilled in the deadly art of combat, and trained to look upon every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “At a time when it doesn’t take much to provoke a cop into opening fire on an unarmed person guilty of doing nothing more than standing a certain way, or moving a certain way, or holding something—anything—that police could misinterpret to be a weapon, the last thing this country needs are police agencies armed with killer robots.”
In 2021, California passed Assembly Bill 481, which requires law enforcement agencies to obtain approval from a county’s board of supervisors prior to taking certain actions relating to the funding, acquisition, or use of military equipment. The law also requires local law enforcement agencies to list and define the authorized uses of all military-grade equipment in their possession. Pursuant to that requirement, a proposed use of equipment policy was submitted to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors by the San Francisco Police Department. The SFPD has more than a dozen functioning, remote controlled robots, which are used to gain situational awareness, survey specific areas officers may not be able to reach, as well as investigate and defuse potential bombs, or aid in hostage negotiations. However, the robots are not presently outfitted with lethal force options. In presenting an amended policy to the Board of Supervisors, the SFPD is seeking approval to arm its robots and use them as deadly force options “when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers are imminent and outweighs any other force option available to the SFPD.” Yet as Rutherford Institute attorneys warn in their letter to the Board of Supervisors, the proposed policy does not quantify the level of risk required to be considered imminent and outweighing any other force option, nor does the policy set forth an objective means for how to assess and determine that risk. This vagueness appears to leave the decision entirely to the police department, which could miscalculate the risk or apply a low standard for the risk requirement, thereby further endangering the citizenry.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.