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Politics & Policy

Cops can deploy killer robots in SF—but only in extreme cases

SFPD is asking City Hall to approve a policy letting officers use robots to seriously injure or kill people as a last resort in deadly situations. | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Killer robots dominated discussion at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors, which OK’d some rules to let SFPD use the machines in life-or-death cases.

Supes also passed a resolution on people standing up to human rights violations in Iran, bolstered anti-discrimination rules for city contractors regarding gender expression and authorized audits for various city departments. 

Meanwhile, they hinted at a possible accord over the fate of Department of Elections boss John Arntz. 

Rise of the Machines 

The most heated discussion involved the police robots, of course.

Supervisors spent two-and-a-half hours deliberating on when and how police could deploy the remote-controlled machines.

The so-called “killer robot” rules stemmed from a much larger policy on how SFPD can deploy all its military equipment. But the idea of robocops policing the city captured national attention, inspired fiery debate and ultimately passed with an 8-3 vote.

Board President Shamann Walton opposed the idea with supervisors Hillary Ronen and Dean Preston joining him in dissent.

SFPD has had the robots in its arsenal for a while, but can now use them when police encounter suspects deemed a fatal threat to officers or the public. 

The remote-controlled robotic vehicles had been allowed for surveillance or to dismantle bombs. Under the new rules, they can now be used to deliver deadly force if the chief or two deputy chiefs say there’s no other option.

The discussion leading up to the vote touched on themes invoked in episodes of “Black Mirror.”

Ronen—who opposed the item entirely while ironically inspiring an amendment that allowed it to pass—reiterated concerns over police using force and raised philosophical arguments against remotely operated killing.

“SFPD has killed 58 people since 2000,” Ronen said, noting how the department has yet to enact reforms promised to the U.S. Department of Justice. “There are so many arguments against this. […] Distance will make killing easier. We don’t want that.” 

Preston chided SFPD Deputy Chief David Lazar for what he called absurd theoretical examples of where remotely operated force might be justified, such as when a heavily armed gunman killed 60 and wounded 400 at a 2017 concert in Las Vegas.

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” Preston said. “San Francisco is not a war zone. […] We voted against Tasers. If SFPD can’t be trusted with Tasers, they sure can’t be trusted with killer robots.”  

Preston also condemned the San Francisco Police Officers Association for using social media to criticize his stand on the issue. 

Meanwhile, supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Myrna Melgar and Catherine Stefani spoke in support of the amended rules, citing emotional arguments by opponents and the rise of political extremism as justifying the provisions. 

“The hyperbole and over the top language is disappointing,” Melgar said. “This isn’t taking money away from ambassadors and other measures.” 

“I am in such a different place from some of my colleagues in my understanding of what we’re discussing,” Mandelman said. “We’re thinking about far-flung and unlikely hypotheticals because Chair Peskin pressed the police department to already do that in the context of a technology the department has had for over a decade.” 

“What bothers me about this conversation is the false narrative, the rhetoric surrounding this is disingenuous and lacks context,” Stefani said. “The militarization of our society has already exploded. […] There were over 600 mass shootings this year.”

Standing for Human Rights in Iran

Protestors call for women's rights in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody. | Chris Victorio for The Standard

Iranian American Supervisor Ahsha Safaí’s resolution in solidarity with protests in Iran and calling for an end to “human rights abuse on the demonstrators in Iran and the immediate release of political prisoners in Iran” passed unanimously. 

The resolution condemns the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on protests across the country as well as the death of activist Mahsa Amini

While the nonbinding resolution isn’t likely to influence Iran’s action, the human rights situation in the country has captured the imagination of Bay Area residents, who have held multiple demonstrations across the city.  

Recognizing Gender Expression—Finally

Gender expression is now expressly protected under the city’s laws against discrimination.

The goal of the revised language is to make “the definitions of gender identity/sex/orientation to be less binary and more inclusive,” according to staff from Mandelman’s office, which sponsored the changes.

Existing definitions, according to the legislative digest, were “based on a limited understanding of the spectrum of identities, which has evolved.” 

More Anti-Corruption Measures

Preston lost one on killer robots but prevailed on another of his oft-mentioned issues: fighting corruption. He suggested, and his colleagues agreed, to have the Budget and Legislative Analyst conduct two additional audits.

One involves purchasing and contracting in city agencies, such as the Department of Public Works, which can approve contracts worth more than what normally requires board approval. Another audit will examine conflicts of interest at city agencies. 

Preston, who chairs the board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee, described the audits as a way to be “more proactive” in tackling corruption.

Roll Call, and a Possible Elections Department Solution?

Last week, the Elections Commission decided to basically fire longtime and well-regarded Elections Department director John Arntz. Peskin and other elected officials have urged the commission to renew Arntz’s contract when it’s up next April. And he made clear that no one on the board wants to fund a search for his replacement.

Commissioners said inviting others to compete with Arntz for his job hews to the city’s Racial Equity Plan by giving a more diverse pool of candidates a shot. 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 California Secretary of State. Supporters of the open-source scheme showed up Tuesday to back the commission’s stance.

At Roll Call, Peskin hinted at a different sort of resolution. Describing recent communications between the board and Elections Commission as productive, he pledged fund a search for a new direction—in five years’ time. 

Another Roll Call resolution came from Supervisor Connie Chan calling on the city to support victims of gun violence by allowing them to sue weapons manufacturers, which they can now do under a law passed in Sacramento earlier this year.

And in a follow-up to his hearing on the Baker Places nonprofit double-dipping scandal, Safaí is sending a letter of inquiry to the Ethics Commission, Department of Human Resources and Department of Public Health asking for a closer look at some 22 other DPH employees with arrangements similar to those of Jail Health Services Director Lisa Pratt

Pratt resigned from her job at Baker Places after The Standard revealed her dual employment, which violated rules against working second jobs on city time.