San Francisco supervisors halt police use of 'killer' robots after public outcry, for now

The board voted unanimously Tuesday to ban such use of robots for now

San Francisco supervisors voted Tuesday to put the brakes on a controversial policy that would let police use robots for deadly force.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban the use of robots in such fashion for now. But they sent the issue back to a committee for further discussion and could allow it in limited cases at another time.

It’s a reversal from last week’s vote, which allowed the police to deploy robots with deadly force in certain emergency situations. 

San Francisco police say the robots would "only be used as a deadly force option when risk of loss of life to members of the public or officers is imminent and outweighs any other force option available to SFPD." 

Diana Scott holds up a sign while taking part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. 

Diana Scott holds up a sign while taking part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The SFPD says it has no plans to outfit robots with any type of firearm, but in "extreme circumstances" the robots could be used to "deliver an explosive charge to breach a structure containing a violent or armed subject" that could be deadly. 

The initial costs of the highly disputed robots totaled under $1 million, according to an inventory sheet reviewed by Fox News Digital. The police department currently owns 17 robots, although five of them are not functioning.

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In total, the initial costs of the robots totaled nearly $861,850, according to the SFPD inventory sheet. According to the mayor's office, the San Francisco Police Department total budget is about $714 million in fiscal year 2023. 

Last week’s approval in San Francisco sparked a fierce debate about the ethics of using robots to kill a suspect with several supervisors joining dozens of protestors outside City Hall to urge the board to change course.

Some supervisors said they felt the public did not have enough time to engage in the discussion about whether robots could be used to kill people before the board first voted last week.

People take part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. 

People take part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

The vote was prompted by a new California law requiring police to inventory military-grade equipment such as flash bang grenades, assault rifles and armored vehicles, and seek approval from the public for their use.

Supervisor Dean Preston, who voted against the policy last week, said the spirit of the law is to make sure "strong feelings people hold" can be heard by public officials. He argued the board failed to allow enough time for that.

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But others said nothing substantive had changed since the board made its vote and the policy should hold.

The policy approved Tuesday would allow police to use robots to check dangerous scenes so police can stay back.

A woman holds up a sign while taking part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. 

A woman holds up a sign while taking part in a demonstration about the use of robots by the San Francisco Police Department outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.  (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In 2016, the Dallas Police Department became the first to kill a suspect with a robot, when it used a robot to detonate explosives during a standoff with a sniper who had killed five police officers and injured nine others.

"Having robots that have eyes and ears and can remove bombs, which happens from time to time, is something that we want the police department to do while we continue to have this very controversial discussion," said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who brought forward last week’s motion around the use of robots.

The new policy needs another vote to take effect.

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The San Francisco Police Department did not immediately respond to Fox News Digital's request for comment. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.