December 3, 2022

Controversy Over Police Robots in San Francisco, and More


Dear PERF members,

Every so often a story in policing gets wildly distorted in the press, and such is the case with police robots in San Francisco. Take a look at these headlines from the past week: “San Francisco approves killer police robots. What could go wrong?” (USA Today); “San Francisco ridiculed over ‘laughable’ push for robot police: ‘Taking policy decisions’ from ‘Terminator’” (Fox News); “Robocop becomes reality as San Francisco police approve killer robots” (Evening Standard).

Here’s what actually happened:

Last year the California legislature passed a bill saying that any police department in the state must get approval from the local governing body to acquire or use military equipment; the goal is to make sure that departments are using equipment with the consent of their local political officials. The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), like departments in many cities across the country, has robots. As you know, robots have played an invaluable role for law enforcement in a number of situations, like defusing suspicious packages and helping in hostage situations.

The Dragon Runner shown here is one of the models of robots in SFPD’s inventory. Source: U.K. Ministry of Defense

When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors reviewed SFPD’s draft equipment policy, a board member proposed adding a statement that “Robots shall not be used as a Use of Force against any person.” The SFPD objected, and the policy was amended to state, “Robots will only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life of members of the public or officers are imminent and outweigh any other force option available to SFPD.” The amended policy, which the board approved by an 8-3 vote, also says that all alternative force and de-escalation tactics must first be considered and deemed insufficient in subduing the threat.

As for accountability, the policy states that only the chief of police, assistant chief, or deputy chief of special operations can authorize the use of deadly force by a robot. This is about as tightly controlled as any department’s use of force policy can be.

But before you know it, sensationalized stories started appearing across the country and beyond, giving the impression that the department is planning to weaponize robots and send them into all kinds of situations. Nothing could be further from the truth. As SFPD Chief Bill Scott emphasized, “These robots would be a last resort. If we ever have to exercise that option, it either means lives, innocent lives, have already been lost, or [are] in the balance, and this would be the only option to neutralize that person putting those lives at risk, or the person who has taken those lives.”

The sad reality is that police departments these days have to prepare for the unthinkable — like active shooter situations. As SFPD Assistant Chief David Lazar explained to the Board of Supervisors: “If you have an active shooter . . . people are pinned down, the police are pinned down, we would then think to ourselves, ‘OK, this is a possible option.’ . . . Instead of a police officer or other members of the public being injured or killed by this individual, we would send in the robot and we would use force that way.”

I’m not suggesting that this option will often be the answer. In most active shooter situations, officers won’t have time to deploy a robot and will need to risk their lives to save others. But if a department didn’t develop all possible options to deal with this kind of scenario, wouldn’t that reflect a failure of imagination — just as the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the U.S. government’s failure of imagination contributed to that disaster?

PERF has long advocated for de-escalation and spoken about the sanctity of human life; we recognize the importance of slowing things down and negotiating. But there are very dangerous occasions when, in order to save lives, police need the ability to use lethal force. This decision is never easy, but departments need to think these tough decisions through ahead of time and have options, backed by a strong policy and strong accountability, to end the killing.

Given the increased distrust of police in the past couple of years, it’s not surprising that some critics claim police will inevitably misuse any options they have. But it’s a good and hopeful sign that most members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors felt otherwise.

Two other news stories involving policing caught my attention this past week:

New York City to Remove More Mentally Ill People from Streets and Subways

New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced this week that the city will increase its use of involuntary mental health removals for psychiatric evaluations.

Mayor Adams said the new policy aims to address a “gray area” in existing law and policy. Under state law, “peace or police officers may take custody and transport … any person who appears to be mentally ill and is conducting himself or herself in a manner which is likely to result in serious harm to the person or others.” This “includes persons who appear to be mentally ill and who display an inability to meet basic living needs, even when there is no recent dangerous act,” according to guidance from the state Office of Mental Health.

The new city policy lays out a three-step process for these involuntary removals:

  1. Police officers or designated clinicians determine that the person needs to be brought to a hospital.
  2. Police officers keep the individual at the scene.
  3. EMS transports the individual to the hospital.

I hope this effort succeeds, and I think it may provide officers with another option when determining how best to help individuals they encounter on the street. But I see a couple potential challenges as this policy is put into practice.

First, officers need to understand how this guidance changes their day-to-day operations. What constitutes “an inability to meet basic living needs,” or conduct “which is likely to result in serious harm to the person or others”? In his remarks, Mayor Adams rightly emphasized the importance of training. This training should include realistic scenarios that mimic the situations officers will likely encounter on the street.

And second, I hope the city’s mental health treatment system is prepared for the increased demand. Mayor Adams said, “We’re going to find a bed for everyone,” but police officials across the country tell me about the challenges they face in getting people needed mental health treatment.

We’ll keep a close eye on this initiative and ask the NYPD to share any lessons learned as it’s implemented.

Traffic Deaths Rose Despite Pandemic

I was surprised and saddened to read in the New York Times that traffic fatalities actually rose in the U.S. in 2020 even though the pandemic forced Americans to cut back on their travel. In nearly every other country the report examined, fatalities went down, often by a large percentage. U.S. traffic fatalities apparently rose again in 2021, preliminary data show.

The main problem, according to the report, is that the U.S. has done much less than other countries to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. But reduced traffic enforcement in the pandemic also played a role. More recently, traffic enforcement across the country has become a flashpoint of controversy, as some police departments have scaled back traffic enforcement in response to data showing the large racial disparities in traffic stops. At the same time, when I read that the United States leads other wealthy nations in traffic fatalities, it tells me there is a role here for police and communities to come together on strategies that are in everyone’s interest.