A San Francisco police officer uses a robot to investigate a bomb threat in 2008.

Early one morning in 2011, the San Francisco Police Department responded to a call about several grenades discovered during the clean out of a residential garage on Potrero Avenue. The bomb squad was deployed, as was a robot that was tasked with safely removing the grenades without putting human lives at risk.

Things didn’t go according to plan.

As the robot rolled away from the garage, a paper bag in its grasp tore, and the grenades contained within scattered across the sidewalk. The robot then rolled over one of them, all captured live on KTVU. It didn’t explode, but the slapstick comedy continued, as the robot then struggled to locate and pick up the grenade. An additional, tiny robot with a camera was sent out to assist.

These bomb squad robots were the subject of a fierce discussion before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this week over whether the Police Department should be permitted to arm them with explosive devices in order to kill dangerous suspects.

The very idea of allowing robots to use deadly force brings to mind the dystopian stories told in “Robocop,” “Terminator” and “Battlestar Galactica.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, it made national headlines.

Few if any municipalities have taken steps to regulate or establish protocols for a robotic police force. But if San Francisco’s supervisors felt the weight of leading the nation in a reasoned debate, it wasn’t apparent from watching Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, the three-hour discussion devolved into arguments between supervisors and fear-mongering on both sides.

“Is ‘killer robot’ an acceptable term? Would ‘robot that kills’ be better?” asked Supervisor Dean Preston, as he defended himself against Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who claimed inflammatory language had politicized the issue. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman accused his progressive colleagues of being “anti-police,” to which Board President Shaman Walton responded that he’s not anti-police, but he is “pro-people of color.” Supervisor Hillary Ronen raised practical questions about ethics and safety — but they were never answered.

While we understand the need to explore new options to keep police officers safe during dangerous operations, the department’s arguments for its proposed robot plan were similarly weak.

Speaking on behalf of the department, Assistant Chief David Lazar failed to present a convincing case for how armed robots would benefit a department whose primary challenges surround quality-of-life crimes like car break-ins. Discussions around whether robots would have assisted in the Mandalay Bay hotel shooting in Las Vegas or the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, were theoretical and half-baked.

The Police Department’s equipment requests had been heard six times by the supervisors’ Rules Committee. But on Tuesday, as many tuned in, the conversation on arming robots was weak. There was no expert testimony. No discussion of accountability if an armed robot inadvertently kills a civilian. No assurances the robots wouldn’t be hacked. No analysis of whether remote-controlled devices like robots or drones increase the likelihood of deadly force being used. No evidence that expanding police access to weapons increases public safety. No scrutiny over whether the Police Department’s failure to complete all of the Department of Justice’s 272 recommendations for reform, issued in 2016, should disqualify it from expanding its arsenal in this way.

In the end, despite a host of unknowns hanging in the air, supervisors voted 8-3 to allow armed robots to use deadly force, with the guardrails that police must try other tactics first and that only a high-ranking department leader can authorize such an operation.

The review of the department’s military equipment that led to this decision was mandated by AB481 — authored by former Assembly Member and current San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu — which passed last year. It requires law enforcement agencies to gain approval from local governments before funding, acquiring or using military-grade equipment, such as armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft, water cannons and remote-controlled robots.

“AB481 was designed to create a transparent, public process so the public can understand what military equipment local law enforcement agencies are using,” Chiu told the Editorial Board Wednesday. “That is what occurred in San Francisco and what has been occurring across California.”

Tuesday’s meeting did prove that there need to be robust protocols for how police use powerful weapons. The San Francisco Police Department has 12 working robots and has yet to arm any of them with a lethal device. It is entirely possible, however, that the department had never considered such a move. A request for clarification over whether this should be allowed opened a Pandora’s Box.

And all too often, when you present someone with a tool, that tool then begs to be used.

The public deserved a robust discussion come decision time. But proper oversight requires that egos be checked, name-calling put on pause and evidence carefully scrutinized.

That didn’t happen on Tuesday. Instead, citizens of San Francisco once again watched as their leaders wrestled with each other more than the full implications of their decision-making.

This commentary is from The Chronicle’s editorial board. We invite you to express your views in a letter to the editor. Please submit your letter via our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.

The editorial positions of The Chronicle, including election recommendations, represent the consensus of the editorial board, consisting of the publisher, the editorial page editor and staff members of the opinion pages. Its judgments are made independent of the news operation, which covers the news without consideration of our editorial positions.

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San Francisco’s debate over killer robots was a highlight reel of our absurd politics

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01.12.2022

A San Francisco police officer uses a robot to investigate a bomb threat in 2008.

Early one morning in 2011, the San Francisco Police Department responded to a call about several grenades discovered during the clean out of a residential garage on Potrero Avenue. The bomb squad was deployed, as was a robot that was tasked with safely removing the grenades without putting human lives at risk.

Things didn’t go according to plan.

As the robot rolled away from the garage, a paper bag in its grasp tore, and the grenades contained within scattered across the sidewalk. The robot then rolled over one of them, all captured live on KTVU. It didn’t explode, but the slapstick comedy continued, as the robot then struggled to locate and pick up the grenade. An additional, tiny robot with a camera was sent out to assist.

These bomb squad robots were the subject of a fierce discussion before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this week over whether the Police Department should be permitted to arm them with explosive devices in order to kill dangerous suspects.

The very idea of allowing robots to use deadly force brings to mind the dystopian stories told in “Robocop,” “Terminator” and “Battlestar Galactica.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, it made national headlines.

Few if any municipalities have taken steps to regulate or establish protocols for a robotic police force. But if San Francisco’s supervisors felt the weight of leading the nation in a........

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