The public isn’t ready to trust police with killer robots—but that shouldn’t stop conversations about the technology

February 3, 2023, 4:54 PM UTC
The aftermath of the standoff in which Dallas police used a robot and an explosive to kill a suspect.
Tony Guiterrez—AP Images

Before jumping into this week’s The Trust Factor, I wanted to provide a brief update about the newsletter. Following today’s edition, my Fortune colleague, Eamon Barrett, will be taking over The Trust Factor from here on out.

No, I’m not the victim of trust-busting layoffs, as I explored last week. Fortune has been incredibly generous and supportive as we’ve labored to illuminate the vital work done to build trust in business. Rather, I’ve accepted a job at a local news startup in Houston, my adopted hometown.

It’s been my privilege to share this space with you, and I look forward to seeing how Eamon and the rest of the Fortune crew carry it forward. Finally, a heartfelt thank you to the many readers and sources who supported our work. 

Now, on to this week’s edition.

For the latest issue of Fortune magazine, I wrote about the ongoing discussion over whether American police should be trusted to deploy one of the most powerful tools potentially at their disposal: weaponized robots.

To date, there’s only been one widely reported instance of local law enforcement using a remote-controlled robot to maim or kill a suspect. (Dallas police used one in 2016 to take out an assailant who murdered five officers in a savage ambush.) Still, rapid advances in engineering and technology have made weaponized robots into a modern-day reality, with some police chiefs arguing they could be useful tools for stopping mass casualty events and other violent situations.

For today, I want to set aside the merits of police using weaponized robots—a prospect that looks even dimmer after the beating death of Tyre Nichols last month at the hands of police in Memphis—and focus on how trust played into the debate over their use in one city: San Francisco.

Several months ago, San Francisco’s police department and its city council, known as the Board of Supervisors, started discussing whether to allow the use of such robots. The conversation stemmed from a law enacted in California the prior year, which stated that municipalities must set policies related to their use of military-grade equipment.

City police told board members that they wanted the authority to deploy a killer robot in extreme circumstances, but the conversation didn’t end there. 

To earn the trust of the San Francisco community and make its voice feel heard, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin—who shepherded the weaponized robot policy as the board’s rules committee chair—took multiple steps to facilitate debate. In a recent interview, Peskin told me that he reached out to several advocacy organizations, including staunch opponents like the American Friends Service Committee, and held committee meetings at which members of the public could provide feedback. He also traveled to police facilities to inspect the robot himself.

Despite negative feedback from some advocacy groups, Peskin and the Board of Supervisors pressed ahead in late November with the first of two votes needed to enact the policy preferred by police, ultimately supporting it by an 8-3 margin.

In the intervening week, however, a media firestorm erupted over the decision. Local, state, and national outlets seized on the vote, often quoting critics of weaponized robots. While San Francisco police stood by the policy, few proponents emerged from the broader public.

At the second vote, scheduled in early December, board members relented to the public pressure. They voted to send the policy back to the rules committee, where it’s not expected to be revived anytime soon.

“We stood our ground, but when the time came for a second reading the week later, a political pragmatist like myself said, ‘I’d not only touched a nerve across San Francisco, but the entire country,’” Peskin said. (San Francisco police subsequently complained that the debate had been “distorted” and was “a distraction from the real issue” of preventing the loss of innocent lives in extreme cases of violence.)

Peskin said the episode became a useful lesson in discussing the limits of trust in law enforcement, as well as the potential to gain the public’s trust by admitting to a mistake.

“Were it not for that (California) law, we never would have had this conversation, and we never would have realized how triggering this dystopian potential future might be,” Peskin said. “I think it was a very healthy, albeit mildly painful, exercise for our city to go through.”

You can read my full story here.

Jacob Carpenter


This week’s top headlines from Fortune that touch on key issues of corporate confidence and accountability.

Generative A.I. is about to upend enterprise software—and cybersecurity
Cybersecurity experts are increasingly nervous about hackers and fraudsters using generative A.I. technology to carry out various scams, including those that rely on email users trusting sophisticated-looking messages, Fortune’s Jeremy Kahn reported. Industry experts said they are seeing fewer phishing attempts that rely on victims clicking malicious links, but hackers are crafting more-polished phishing messages that might be produced through generative A.I.

To regain public trust, governments need to work with the only institution people believe in—the private sector
Recent polling that shows strong global confidence in business should prompt more politicians to seek out public-private partnerships, Charles Dunst, the author of Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman, wrote in a commentary for Fortune. “That trust means that policymakers must see the private sector not as a cause of democracy’s problems, but rather a solution,“ Dunst wrote.

Gen Z and millennials are rejecting consumer culture on TikTok and ‘de-influencing’ to protect their money
A TikTok trend of “de-influencing”—the practice of criticizing online efforts to push consumer products—has taken off in recent weeks, illustrating younger generations’ fading trust in high-profile digital personalities, Fortune’s Alicia Adamczyk reported. The fad follows rising competition between social media and e-commerce companies to attract influencers who drive online traffic and hawk products to viewers.

Trends like rage applying and quiet quitting stem from a broken workplace, says a future-of-work expert. There’s one way to fix it
Mass resignations, quiet quitting, and other trends reflecting discontent among the working masses are evidence of a corporate culture that has de-emphasized employee choice and flexibility, Slack Future Forum co-founder and vice president Sheela Subramanian told a Fortune Connect crowd. “People want to be treated like humans, they want to be trusted. And this trust is what’s keeping them at their organizations as loyal and engaged employees,” Subramanian said.


A weekly look at how one company is tackling a particularly thorny topic that could undercut faith in its organizational foundation.

A prescription for trust. In medicine, the first step in diagnosing a problem is to look at a patient’s history. French health care conglomerate Sanofi recently applied that approach to the problem of distrust in medicine, commissioning a survey of 11,500 people in five countries about their experience with the medical system. The survey revealed that people from historically marginalized demographic groups—including ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and those identifying as LGBTQ+—were significantly more likely than other respondents to say that they had experiences that had hurt their trust in health care systems. Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams said health care officials can help address these shortcomings by hiring a more diverse workforce, investing more in preventative efforts, and listening more closely to patients.

Learn how to navigate and strengthen trust in your business with The Trust Factor, a weekly newsletter examining what leaders need to succeed. Sign up here.

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet