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Politics & Policy

Supervisors look to approve ‘killer robot’ policy

An SFPD vehicle sits in the Mission Police Station in San Francisco on May 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

This week, the Board of Supervisors will be addressing some extraordinary issues, ranging from the human rights struggle in Iran to more audits for city agencies. 

They’ll also be discussing killer robots. No, we’re not kidding. 

Wonks in search of the whole kit and caboodle can check out this week’s agenda

Android Paranoia

In the Isaac Asimov short story “Runaround,” a robot on a space repair mission becomes confused during a lifesaving maneuver because of a conflict between laws governing its operation. In the end, a human astronaut must risk his life to convince the robot to complete the mission.

This week, supervisors may find themselves in a similar dilemma as they consider whether to allow lethal force by robots operated by
the San Francisco Police Department

In response to concerns over the militarization of police, then-Assemblymember and current City Attorney David Chiu authored AB 481, which gives city councils power to oversee police use of military hardware like assault rifles, armored vehicles—and now robots, apparently. 

On Tuesday, supervisors will vote on an ordinance that will require board approval of SFPD’s equipment use policy, and also approve the first iteration of that policy—the product of a monthslong negotiation with SFPD.  

During that process, Supervisor Aaron Peskin floated an amendment to ban use of force by robots, according to a report last week by Mission Local.

SFPD staff responded by rewriting the amendment to allow use of force by robots only “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 revisions apparently passed muster with Peskin, who conceded that events such as the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection warranted the use of extra firepower by police, though with strict oversight.

“I think they get it,” said Peskin at a committee meeting on Nov. 14, referring to SFPD’s recognition that the public expects strict oversight of the use of military equipment. The legislation was sent to the full board with unanimous recommendation. 

Peskin is a watchdog on emerging police technology, having championed a ban of facial recognition applications in 2019 and brokered agreements on use of surveillance cameras.

Robots were not discussed at the Nov. 14 committee meeting. Instead, police watchdog activists said the legislation did not go far enough in regulating SFPD’s use of automatic firearms and other issues. 

Human Rights in Iran

Last board meeting, Iranian American Supervisor Ahsha Safaí introduced a resolution in support of human rights protests in Iran and calling for “the immediate cessation of human rights abuse on the demonstrators in Iran and the immediate release of political prisoners in Iran.” 

It’s a response to the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on protests across the country following abuses by religious police and the death of activist Mahsa Amini

While the board often gets flak for resolutions on foreign policy—the nonbinding resolution isn’t likely to influence Iran’s actions—the human rights situation has captured the attention of Bay Area residents, who have held multiple demonstrations across the city.  

The board will be voting on the resolution tomorrow. It’s expected to pass unanimously.

More Audits

Dean Preston speaks at a Board of Supervisors meeting on May 3, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Also before the board is a motion by Supervisor Dean Preston directing the Budget and Legislative Analyst to conduct two additional performance audits. 

One would involve the purchasing and contracting practices of city agencies, such as the Department of Public Works, that are allowed to authorize contracts for amounts over what normally requires board approval. Another would examine conflicts of interest at city agencies generally. 

Preston, who chairs the board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee, described these audits as part of an effort to be “more proactive” in evaluating department policies with an eye toward corruption. They sent the motion to the full board with positive recommendation.  

Resolution on Elections Chief?

The board will also likely wade into other headline-grabbing issues, such as the Election Commission’s recent decision not to renew the contract of Department of Elections Director John Arntz

The decision shocked and outraged many at City Hall, who noted Arntz’s excellent record running local elections. Arntz, who has served in the role since 2002, is highly regarded for running orderly elections—including four in this year alone—in the face of numerous pandemic-related challenges.

Despite a letter of support from managers at the elections department, Arntz was notified by the commission last week that his contract would not be renewed. He is free to reapply, however, as part of a national search.

Commissioners justified their decision by pointing to the city’s Racial Equity Plan, saying it was time to give a more diverse pool of candidates a shot at the job. But many speculated that the decision had more to do with politics around “open source voting,” a system that has yet to be approved by the Secretary of State. 

Peskin has already said that he will introduce a resolution urging the Elections Commission to renew Arntz’s contract when it’s up next April—and that resolution could indeed be coming, along with commentary, at Roll Call on Tuesday.