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Debate Over Military Technologies in the SFPD

*Photo Credit to NPR

On November 29th, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to allow the San Francisco Police Department to use lethal remotely controlled robots in “emergency situations”. This debate is a part of a larger push from the SFPD to obtain and utilize military-grade gear and weaponry in its operations. Since the signing of Assembly Bill 481 by Newsom in September of last year, all police departments are required to inventory their military technology and neither use nor purchase new stock until council approval. However, based on cases in several other cities, this bill does not slow the flow of military force in domestic settings. Interviews with Supervisor Connie Chan, who voted to approve the motion, reveal that council members often disregard their options, viewing the approval process as an obligation rather than a chance for deeper consideration: “according to state law, we are required to approve the use of this equipment. So here we are, and it’s definitely not an easy discussion.” The SFPD claimed to not have any armed robots at the time of approval, and denied plans to attach firearms to pre-existing robots. Rather, the new weapons would have explosives attached to them before being led into the path of a target and detonated. This is similar to the initial case of domestic lethal unmanned craft in 2016 in Dallas Texas, where such a device was used to kill a shooter after five officer fatalities. This case began much of the discussion regarding unmanned killer craft. Spokespeople for the SFPD claim that the department will only use such tactics in dire situations.

Perhaps inevitably, outcry came instantly following this decision. Fatalities at the hands of police officers are only rising and now are a staple of modern news, with more cases of police brutality popping up constantly. Plus, as many civil rights groups and even members of the council have been eager to point out, the SFPD has been known to target minorities and poor neighborhoods. In the eyes of the opposition, this policy would only serve to further militarize an already aggressive and biased institution, further threatening the lives of lower-income and minority communities. As board president Shamann Walton stated regarding his push against the proposal, such made him not anti-police, but “pro-people of color.” Several members of the council joined demonstrations outside San Francisco City Hall during the following week, and the debate quickly gained greater attention. When such measures initially failed, Walton, along with fellow opponents Dean Preston and Hillary Ronen, suggested the notion of placing the matter on the ballot. Walton, Preston, and Ronen were also opponents of another controversial SFPD legislature, allowing the department to monitor live surveillance feeds, arguing such to be a violation of privacy rights.

Ultimately, such measures proved to be unnecessary. When the Board reconvened the following Tuesday to vote once more on the matter, the legislation was rescinded. However, the issue was not done away with - rather, the debate has been shelved and sent back to the committee. Regardless, the decision was a relief to many opponents of further militarization, with Preston calling the reversal “crucial.” This conclusion to the issue follows a trend in San Francisco, with new militant proposals popping up before the board, being passed, and then shot down on a now regular basis. As such, it is unlikely that this is the last time the San Francisco Board of Administrators makes headlines.

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