Will the Police Get Killer Robots?

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, a solicitor who considers the latest news from America about the police getting killer robots.

San Francisco police will soon have “killer robots” on their streets. Will we be next? Kevin Donoghue considers the situation in this blog post.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor

It is often said that when America sneezes, Britain catches a cold. Well, if that’s true, a recent development in San Francisco might have us all reaching for the tissue box.

As this story in Wired describes, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently gave the police “the right to kill a criminal suspect with a teleoperated robot if they believe there is an imminent threat of death to police or members of the public.”

What are teleoperated robots?

According to TechTarget.com:

teleoperations, also called telerobotics, is the technical term for the remote control of a robot. In a telerobotic system, a human operator controls the movements of the robot from some distance away. Signals are sent to the robot to control it; other signals come back, telling the operator that the robot has followed the instructions. These control and return signals are called telemetry.

This technology has been around for a while. It will be familiar to those who watch ITV’s Trigger Point, where police explosives officers use telerobotics to counter terrorist bomb threats.

Police forces and the military worldwide are comfortable with robots for tasks like this, using tools like the Remotec F5A bomb disposal robot. And they have other uses too. For example, San Francisco Police also use telerobotics for search-and-rescue missions, which could be life-saving in an earthquake.

Why should we be concerned?

The problem with teleoperated robots is that the technology can be adapted for use-of-force roles. Again, referring to San Francisco, the police already have robots which can be equipped with a shotgun, explosives, or pepper spray emitter.

And the technology is evolving rapidly in a sinister way.

As the Wired story describes, Axon, the manufacturer of Taser weapons popular with police forces the world over, plans to add weapons to drones.

In an even more dystopian twist, police in New York and Germany are already using legged robots. And in China, they are working on teaming four-legged robots with drones to chase down and apprehend suspects. Most frightening of all is that an American company, Ghost Robotics, is developing legged robots which carry guns.

What happens when the police get new “kit”?

It’s no exaggeration to say that police officers love their “kit”. Once they get their hands on Tasers, spit hoods, incapacitant sprays, and other ways to use force, they invariably use them. As I pointed out in my three-part blog post: Why did the Boys in Blue Turn into the Boys in Black? our police forces are now equipped with so much military gear that they are often indistinguishable from an occupying army. There are several reasons for this. They include the threat (real or imagined) of terrorism, budget cuts, and the rapid development of law enforcement technology.

But weaponising the police is problematic. Spit hoods are a prime example. Police Federations promoted their adoption despite no official approval from the government’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology and plenty of evidence showing that spit hoods were dangerous, and often deadly.

So, once police officers got hold of them, it was inevitable that they would rush to use their exciting new “kit” instead of applying their Code of Ethics and the police National Decision Model, which may have limited the use of force. (These two elements are supposed to combine to require that a police officer’s use of force should be “necessary, proportionate, and reasonable in all the circumstances”.)

How the police use their kit

In practice, the Code of Ethics is often abandoned, especially in London when dealing with black and mixed race individuals who are disproportionately targeted by weapons-wielding police officers.

And, as the Home Office found, between April 2019-March 2020 Metropolitan Police officers used taser guns, pepper spray, batons, and spit hoods on pregnant women, or those believed to be expecting, 2,556 times between 2018-2021. This was a disproportionately high amount compared to 15 other forces who responded to the request for data. The rest used such force on 3,818 girls and women during the same period.

Instead of being trigger-happy, the police could, and should, be practising de-escalation techniques, such as those used in other parts of the world. For example, as this BBC report describes, in Japan the police “prefer to rely on their skills in martial arts – and futon rolling – rather than using weapons”.

The false security of chains of command

A common refrain from the police is that every piece of new use-of-force kit (spit hoods, Tasers, killer robots, guns etc.) will only be used as a last resort, after thorough training, and/or careful consideration by senior officers. This might convince some, but I am sure, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes would not be comforted. (You might remember that former Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick was in charge of the operation when Mr de Menezes was killed by armed Metropolitan Police officers while sitting on a London Underground train.)

This is how the police will try to convince the public that they need killer robots

The police, and its union the Police Federation, have a well-known playbook for getting hold of more use-of-force kit. It was used successfully with spit hoods:

  1. Hype up the threat. Don’t let the fact that infections through spit transmission are rare get in the way of fear-mongering. (Hepatitis C and HIV cannot be transmitted by spitting.)
  2. Make the public and politicians afraid. Tell them that they will be responsible if officers die.
  3. Propose a solution which (surprise, surprise) involves the use of more deadly “kit”. Spit hoods are convenient, inexpensive, and readily available
  4. Get rank-and-file officers on board. Do it despite the risk to their own safety from using force rather than well-established, and safer, de-escalation techniques
  5. Create unbearable pressure in the media (and especially social media) to force politicians and senior officers to do what they want. Drive the narrative with media friendly names (spit hoods were called “spit guards” by the police advocates during media appearances.) I have been involved in countless radio phone-ins where the spit hood debate raged and observed this first-hand
  6. Get the kit and use it as often as possible to increase visibility and a false sense of security in the public.

Knowing this, you can see how the same techniques would work for teleoperated “killer” robots:

  1. Hype up the threat. Tell people that terrorists are among us. They can make weapons of mass destruction easily. And, aside from terrorists, tell the public that guns are more common on our streets.
  2. Make the public and politicians afraid. It’s not safe out there. We don’t want to become like America, do we?
  3. Propose a solution which (surprise, surprise) involves the use of more deadly “kit”. Robots are already used by the Army and police force bomb squads. The police are merely proposing that they expand the abilities of robots to include use-of-force
  4. Get rank-and-file police officers on board. Tell them that with killer robots in place officers can go home safely
  5. Create unbearable pressure in the media (and especially social media) to force politicians to do what they want. Drive the narrative with media friendly names (For example, refer to killer robots as “officer-operated public safety devices”, or some other vague term.) This both-sides debate is meat and drink for many day-time radio hosts looking to fill hours
  6. Get the kit and use it as often as possible to increase visibility and a false sense of security in the public. Seeing a robot tackling criminals could suggest to many that the police are doing something about crime.

What happens next?

Britain’s police will be watching the American “killer robot” debate with great interest. There are massive financial incentives for companies like Axon to develop this technology. Those, coupled with their existing, and lucrative, connections within our police forces, mean that it is only a matter of time before weaponised teleoperated robots become part of the sales pitch to Chief Constables and high-level procurement staff.

It is a matter for the public to decide if we want to learn from how the police became weaponised in the past or repeat the same mistake.

Kevin Donoghue is a specialist solicitor who represents victims of police misconduct in their civil actions against the police.