The rising tide of policing by robots and drones may seem relentless or even inevitable. But activism, legislative advocacy, and public outrage can do a lot to protect our safety and freedom from these technologies.
This year began with a report that elucidated what police are doing with drones. Answer? Not much for now. A law in Minnesota mandates police departments report all of the times they deployed drones and for what reason. We’ve suspected that police have few clear uses, other than invasive surveillance. The Minnesota report reveals that drones were mostly just for training purposes.
One purpose Axon was hoping to find for drones this year was to stop school shooters. The company announced they were developing a drone that came with a mounted taser for the purpose of subduing people in dangerous situations. The backlash was immediate. After a majority of Axon’s ethics board resigned the company paused the project.
In Oakland and in San Francisco, activists defeated municipal plans to authorize police to use deadly force with remote-controlled robots. In Oakland, police hoped to use a shotgun-mounted robot-–a plan which received so much backlash the proposal was pulled in just a few days. In San Francisco, it took a little longer. After the Board of Supervisors voted 8-to-3 to authorize police to use robots strapped with bombs to deploy deadly force, an EFF-led coalition mobilized. After one week, which included a rally and international press attention, the Board of Supervisors reversed course.
Of course, no fight stays won. Robot companies still want to make money. Police still want to send robots to do their work. The Department of Homeland Security still has plans to test autonomous robot dogs on the U.S. border as part of its massive infrastructure of border surveillance. But, with enough organizing, lobbying, and a fair bit of outrage, we can resist and often win.
Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst working on issues of surveillance and policing at the local, state, and federal level. He received a PhD in history at the University of Connecticut where his research focused on the intersection of race, immigration, U.S. imperialism, and policing in New York City. He is the co-editor of The Essential Kerner Commission Report (Liveright, 2021) and his bylines have appeared in NBC News, the Washington Post, Slate, Motherboard, and the Freedom of Information-centered outlet Muckrock. Matthew is an affiliated scholar at University of California, Hastings-School of Law and serves as an editor of “Disciplining the City,” a series on the history of urban policing and incarceration at the Urban History Association’s blog The Metropole.
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