The San Francisco police will be able to use remote-controlled robots capable of killing, despite fierce opposition from civil liberties groups.
Opponents of the move said it would lead to further militarization of a police force already too aggressive with poor and minority communities.
The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) says it has no pre-weaponized robots and has no plans to arm robots with guns.
However, the department could deploy robots equipped with explosive charges “to contact, incapacitate or disorient violent, armed or dangerous suspects” when lives are at stake, SFPD spokeswoman Allison Maxie said.
“Robots equipped in this way would only be used in extreme circumstances to save or prevent further loss of innocent life,” he said.
Police forces currently have a dozen ground robots, used to assess bombs or provide reconnaissance in low-visibility environments.
However, explicit permission has been sought for the use of robots as a form of force after a new California law went into effect this year requiring police and sheriff departments to inventory military-grade equipment and ask for approval for their use.
A federal program has long dispensed with surplus grenade launchers, camouflage uniforms, bayonets, armored vehicles and other military equipment to aid local law enforcement, a source of significant controversy.
More than half of US police violence cases were misclassified or went unreported
He calls for a halt to the extension of stop and search powers in the police bill
Tuesday’s debate lasted more than two hours with members of both sides accusing the other of scaremongering.
Council chairman Shamann Walton, who voted against the proposal, said doing so made him not anti-police, but “pro-colored”.
“We are continually being asked to do things in the name of increasing guns and opportunities for negative interaction between the police department and people of color,” he said. “This is just one of those things.”
The San Francisco Public Defender’s office sent a letter to the council on Monday saying that giving police “the ability to kill community members remotely” goes against the city’s progressive values.
The bureau wanted the board to reinstate language prohibiting police from using robots against any person in an act of force.
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who voted in favor of the policy, said he was disturbed by rhetoric that portrays the police department as unreliable and dangerous.
“I think there are bigger issues raised when progressives and progressive politics start looking at the public as if they are anti-police,” he said.
Across the San Francisco Bay, the Oakland Police Department dropped a similar proposal after public backlash.
The first time a robot was used to deliver explosives in the United States was in 2016, when Dallas police dispatched an armed robot that killed a holed-up sniper who had killed five officers in an ambush.