Oakland police want to arm bomb-defusing robots with lethal shotguns

Human rights advocates worry about use of armed robots

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Tuesday 18 October 2022 20:47 BST
Watch pack of Boston Dynamics robot dogs pull lorry

Police in Oakland, California, are seeking permission from city officials to load lethal shotgun rounds into their bomb-defusing robots, raising concerns from civil rights and technology activists.

During a series of meetings in September between the Oakland Police Department and a civilian oversight council, officers raised the possibility of arming their $280,000 Northrop Grumman Remotec Andros Mark 5-A1 robot, a 900-pound remote-controlled vehicle used in bomb threats and other high-risk situations.

When a council member suggested new rules preventing the department from arming its robots, police officials pushed back.

“I don’t want to add a prohibited use,” Lt Omar Daza-Quiroz replied, The Intercept reported, “because what if we need it for some situation later on?”

The department later suggested language that would allow the OPD to use armed robots during “certain catastrophic, high-risk, high-threat, mass casualty events.”

“Anytime anyone has a tool, they’re going to use it more,” Jennifer Tu, a fellow with the American Friends Service Committee and member of the Oakland Police Commission subcommittee on militarized policing, told The Intercept. “You have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And the more that police, in general, have military equipment, have more weapons, those weapons get used.”

For now, the city council has only agreed to consider new rules allowing the robots to attack people with non-lethal pepper spray, and will take up discussion on the provision on Tuesday.

Human rights advocates have argued against armed robots being used in policing.

“Laws are needed to ensure police forces don’t ignore these dangers as they expand their use of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies,” Human Rights Watch warned last year. “Pledges not to weaponize robots will not prevent a future of digital dehumanization and automated killing.”

A future of highly lethal police robots isn’t as far away as it might seem.

In 2016, Dallas police used the same model of robot as the OPD, in this case strapped with an explosive payload, to kill a sniper who had slain five police officers.

Many in law enforcement praised leaders for ending the crisis without further risking lives, but civil rights advocates fretted the killing marked a watershed moment, the first police killing by robot in US history.

“Was there really no other option than to use a robot to blow this person up?” Brigitt Keller, the executive director of the New York-based National Police Accountability Project at the time, told The Washington Post. “It’s an emotional situation, I understand that. But even a person who killed five police officers deserves due process. . . . It’s important that the Constitution applies, that somebody cannot just be summarily executed.”

US police have steadily gotten access to more military-grade weaponry and technology in recent decades.

Since 1996, the Department of Defense’s 1033 programme has transferred $7bn of military equipment including rifles, armour, and riot weapons to police forces.

During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, federal officials used drones to spy on demonstrators in at least 15 cities.

Last year, the New York Police Department tested a dog-like Boston Dynamics robot, a style of machine other defence contractors have already outfitted with guns and sought to sell to the military.

Officials like US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed the deployment, saying money for such technologies would be better spent on school counseling and other social services

“Now robotic surveillance ground drones are being deployed for testing on low-income communities of color with under-resourced schools,” she said at the time.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in