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News + PoliticsPoliceCops used robots for search warrants, and now want a robot dog

Cops used robots for search warrants, and now want a robot dog

New report contains alarming data about the use of automated military weapons against people in San Francisco.

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The San Francisco cops have been increasingly using military equipment, and intend to buy more, including a robot dog, a new report shows.

The Police Department is required under state law to report to the supes every year on new military equipment and potential new equipment; the bill, by SF Assemblymember David Chiu, who is now the city attorney,  was aimed at making sure policy agencies weren’t quietly buying dangerous gear.

The cops delayed issuing that report for months, until Sup. Dean Preston sent a formal letter of inquiry demanding access to the information.

Coming soon to SF? Spot the robot dog from Boston Dynamics. Wikimedia Commons image.

It’s never been clear to me, or to a lot of folks, why the cops in a city like San Francisco need the type of equipment that soldiers use on a battlefield, particularly since it’s often used in cities during demonstrations.

But when the money’s there for fancy gear, the cops are going to spend it.

And now, we have a sense how.

The report has received little attention; only MissionLocal reported on it.  But it’s full of interesting details:

A big robot known as REMOTEC F6A was used twice in the past year, once “to render a suspected explosive device safe,” which is what the military uses these things for—and “during a warrant service to render a residence safe to enter.”

The report provides no details, but it appears that the cops sent a robot that can climb stairs to enter a house where someone was living. And then … what? To “render a residence safe to enter?” Did the robot seek to disarm a suspect? I’ve asked SFPD for more data, but they haven’t responded.

More:

ThrowBots were used 48 times in 2023, during critical incidents and search warrant service to locate suspects and further de-escalate incidents.

There are essentially little spy robots; not clear how they “de-escalate” incidents.

Lenco BearCat with a Patriot 3 Liberator ramp system (BearCat) was used approximately 36 times for critical incidents and high-risk search warrant service. The use of the BearCat resulted in the safe resolution of critical incidents and high-risk search warrants.

That’s a very large, armored vehicle with roof rack that turns into a ramp that can take officers up to a second floor. Again: Not sure how this was needed for search warrants.

Flash Bangs were used 35 times during critical incidents and during the service of high-risk search warrants in 2023. They were used to deescalate and resolve incidents by gaining compliance from subjects. There were no injuries sustained from the use of flash bangs. Pepperball systems were used 11 times during critical incidents to de-escalate and prevent the use of a lethal alternative. Non-life-threatening injuries were sustained by suspects; Pepperballs were used to prevent further escalation.

But there’s even more:

The Department intends to acquire three (3) additional Recon Scout ThrowBots, one (1) QinetiQ Talon, one (1) Remotec Rons and upgrade one (1) Remotec F6A platform, to modernize the technology. The Department intends to explore the use of Spot™-The Agile Mobile Robot from Boston Dynamics.

Yes, “Spot” is a robot dog. The Talon is another tactical robot.

The cops also have a whole lot of military-style assault weapons.

From Preston’s statement on the report:

“It is now clear why SFPD delayed for months,” stated Supervisor Preston. “The report outlines a spending spree for military equipment that’s fundamentally inconsistent with the budget reality in our city. Most alarming, buried in the report is the admission that SFPD is considering acquiring, for the first time, robot police dogs that have been highly controversial in other cities.” 

Per projections based on SFPD’s reports, it appears that SFPD intends to spend at least $750K1 acquiring new military equipment in the midst of a budget deficit of nearly $790 million budget deficit over the next two fiscal years. Meanwhile, essential services – like food for the hungry, anti-sexual exploitation programs, violence prevention, and youth programs – are being cut. This military equipment – including two more Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) used against protesters, more machine guns, and now even robot dogs – will not make us safer and are a waste of taxpayer money. 

“San Franciscans don’t want dystopian police robot dogs – they want police to show up when they call 911,” stated Preston.

It’s interesting that the cops released this list of expensive gear too late for the supes to ask about it during budget hearings. Preston has sent another letter asking the department to “clarify its plans and rationale for acquiring the equipment.”

The cops, thanks to a vote in 2022, have the right to buy and use robots that are armed and can kill people. There’s no indication at this point that a robot has injured anyone.

The killer robots must by law be operated remotely by an officer—but once you start allowing this, I fear the next step will be an AI robot that makes its own decisions when to use lethal force.

Scary.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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