For many years, mechanized robots armed with the most modern weapons were used only during military conflicts to neutralize explosive devices. However, recently, American law enforcement agencies have been seriously considering the use of military robotic devices to eliminate suspects and suppress protests.
Since September 2022, discussions on the use of mechanized robots have been held in the ranks of the leadership of a number of police departments throughout the United States. For many years, the military and police have been using robots, which are radio-controlled devices with tank tracks and manipulators, for contactless neutralization of explosive devices at a distance. However, after law enforcement officers in Dallas, Texas, in 2016 used a robot with an explosive device attached to it to kill a suspect in a mass shooting, talk about the full-fledged introduction of robots into the ranks of the American police does not subside.
After the 2016 incident, various civil rights groups and organizations held a series of rallies and protests, expressing their concern that the police would continue to use robots to kill suspects. If then human rights activists managed to prove to officials the potential danger of using such funds, today, 6 years later, the American police are much more determined.
In September, the Oakland, California Police Department discussed the possibility of using a Remotec Andros Mark V-A1 robot equipped with a shotgun to participate in “high-risk” operations. According to the city’s police chief, the use of killer robots is only possible in emergency situations. However, the officer could not provide clear criteria determining the danger of the incident, stating that the decision on each specific case is taken separately. This means that the police have the right to independently decide which situation is an emergency, respectively, the right to use an armed robot is not regulated in any way.
At the end of November, the Supervisory Board of San Francisco, California, voted to adopt a policy that allows officers to kill people with robots. After an emotional debate, the city’s police leadership granted the police the right to use remotely controlled robots armed with firearms. In addition to the introduction of armed robots, changes in the department’s policy allow for the use of mechanized devices equipped with explosive devices. According to the San Francisco Police Department, this will disable or disorient armed or dangerous suspects.
According to human rights activists, the formulations regulating the policy of the use of force by the police are often interpreted much more broadly, including this is possible with regard to the use of robots. While agencies often state that military technology will only be used in rare cases, the actual rules are often written to give police officers the freedom to do almost anything they want with this technology. In San Francisco, the policy will allow the department to use armed robots in almost any situation – police officers can use these weapons to kill people from a distance if they say they fear for their lives.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit organization, has been warning against the use of robots by the police for several years. In addition to the many other reasons why these machines can be dangerous, the ACLU notes that operational officers do not have the same tactical or situational awareness when using a remote-controlled device. A simple misinterpretation of human movements or other signals can lead to unnecessary casualties or cause damage to random bystanders.
In order to assume the potential harm from supplying the American police with robots, it is enough to pay attention to the tendency of the US military to use unmanned aerial vehicles to kill innocent people. Over the past few years, the US military has carried out thousands of UAV strikes on settlements in the Middle East, as a result of which tens of thousands of innocent people have been killed. Often, the operators of unmanned aerial vehicles did not think about who they were opening fire on, and an investigation conducted by the US Veterans Association showed that during the American campaign of 2019 in the Afghan province of Helmand, fire was opened on people “who used radios or at least touched them.”
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice see serious risks and potential risks of violating people’s civil rights in the use of armed robots by the American police. Vague formulations of legal standards for the use of robots will allow US law enforcement agencies to use robots to conduct searches in homes, vehicles and disperse peaceful demonstrations and protests. In addition, the use of a remote-controlled mechanism reduces the psychological barrier to committing violence, since the suspect’s life depends on pressing a button on the operator’s remote control.