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Killer Robots And The San Francisco Supervisors Who Love Them

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By: Ian Firstenberg

Credit for the BOS walk back of so-called killer robots belongs with the protestors.

Well that was a close one. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted to prohibit police use of remote controlled robots with lethal force after initially supporting the proposal in late November.

It seems like the lessons of 1980s sci-fi movies aren’t lost on all of us.

This all came about when the City reviewed the police’s equipment policy as part of a new state bill, AB 481, that mandates departments across the state annually assess their stock of military-style weapons, their cost, how they can be used and how they were deployed in the previous year.

According to Mission Local, SFPD failed to include more than a hundred assault rifles in their assessment, claiming that the firearms were standard issue. Before unwinding the saga of San Francisco’s potential killer robots, it’s worth noting how police departments across the country have such a surplus of weapons.

How’d We Get Here

In 1990, shortly after Robocop —a movie that depicts an desolate future in which a multinational corporation seeks to privatize police departments across the U.S. with the deployment of cyborgs— hit the box office, Congress authorized the LESO 1033 Program as part of a broader budgetary defense act with an equally boring name.

According to the Defense Logistics Agency, this program “authorized the transfer of excess DoD property to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.” As of June 2020, “roughly 8,200 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies from 49 states and four U.S. territories participating in the program.”

I will sleep soundly tonight knowing Guam has surface to air missiles, just in case Micronesia gets a little too big for their britches.

Call me a bleeding heart but I don’t think the Manteca police force needs an armored personnel carrier.

The common refrain from supporters is that, yes Manteca police do need an MRAP because you never know what kind of hostage situation you’ll find yourself in. Being a police officer is certainly dangerous, granted that seems like what you sign up for, but it is certainly not as dangerous as Syria, Afghanistan or any other country in which the U.S. has deployed these vehicles. If it were, these guys wouldn’t sign up to be cops.

The continued armament, through governmental channels, of local police forces has a much more fraught and interesting history than we have time for but all of these factors coalescing around killer robots in the tech capital of the world is grimly ironic.

San Francisco’s Killer Robots The killer robot fiasco comes at a time when city leadership has undertaken a wide rollback of the progressive and statistically successful policies of former District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Brooke Jenkins was appointed his successor following the June recall election and worked hard over the summer to institute “law and order.”

Rehashing the recall and subsequent drama is ineffective and frankly, not fun. But Jenkins’ tumultuous start was a strong indication that the ideological underpinning of Boudin’s former office was being flipped upside down.

Jenkins quickly shifted the focus of the DA’s office back toward “repeat and violent offenders” as well as property crime.

In September, the Board of Supervisors approved a policy that allows police to access live feeds from private security cameras, without a warrant, if granted permission by business or property owners.

While Jenkins did not write the policy, her appointment as DA and the direction she’s taken with the power of the office indicate that city leadership aim to institute, or reinstitute, more punitive legal measures. Jenkins’ approach, and by extension Mayor London Breed’s approach, to quality of life issues is to crack the whip, by any means necessary.

City officials have relinquished any pretenses of solutions to the woes of the unhoused and the poor, opting instead for reactionary, regressive policies. Boudin’s brief but effective attempt to restructure the city’s legal system, and by extension the politics of one of America’s wealthiest metropolises, was rebuked by wealthy investors in favor of bloodlust.

The insight gleaned from supervisors’ walk back is that the only real solution now is collective.

Supervisors voted down to prohibit the robots due, in no small part, to the vocal and repeated protests of opponents. That small victory is instructive to the future of San Francisco. Despite how trite it seems in an increasingly alienating world, we can make a different future working together.

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