Dallas Police Want to Suppress Bomb Robot Evidence That’s ‘Embarrassing'

Dallas police have asked the Texas attorney general to prevent the "mandatory" release of documents relating to its use of a bomb robot to kill a suspect.

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Aug 12 2016, 5:06pm

Image: Ron Jenkins/Getty

The Dallas Police Department is trying to suppress all evidence it has relating to its use of a bomb robot to kill the man suspected of killing four police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest last month. It has asked the Texas attorney general to allow it to withhold information that is "embarrassing" and has said that much of the evidence is "of no legitimate concern to the public."

Dallas Police Chief David Brown said the department took the unprecedented measure of using "our bomb robot" after Micah Johnson had holed up in a parking garage and had apparently exchanged gunfire with law enforcement.

"We saw no other option than to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension to detonate where the suspect was," Brown said at a press conference soon after Johnson was killed. "Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger."

The Dallas Police Department sent a separate letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking him to exempt large parts of my request and the requests of 16 other journalists from "mandatory disclosure."

Civil liberties groups weren't quite sure how to immediately respond to the move. We've seen that technology and tactics introduced in extreme circumstances gradually become the norm in policing. Perhaps the Dallas police were justified in their use of a bomb robot in this particular instance, but experts such as Ian Kerr, a professor of technology and law at the University of Ottawa, told me that the event "changes the calculus about decisions such as when to use lethal force in hostage situations."

Most experts I spoke with noted that it'll be important for us to both gather information about how the decision was made to use the robot in the first place, and then use that information to help inform guidelines for the use of remotely delivered lethal force in the future.

Gawker reporter Andy Cush found through a records request that the Dallas police had no formal plan of action for the use of the bomb robot, that it truly was an improvised use of the technology.

The Dallas police does have records about the aftermath of the incident, however, and is trying to cover them up. I formally asked the Dallas police department for body camera footage taken by police and onboard footage taken by the robot of the operation. Motherboard reporter Joseph Cox asked for communications that took place in the aftermath of the event, as well as documents about the purchase of the robot.

The police admitted in a response to me that it does have these videos, but told me in a letter that "all or part of the requested information may not be disclosed at this time." The Dallas Police Department sent a separate letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking him to exempt large parts of my request and the requests of 16 other journalists from "mandatory disclosure."

The Dallas Police Department tells the attorney general that some of the information requested could be "embarrassing"

That the Texas Police Department would want to hide information that could later be used to find vulnerabilities in its processes or would violate the privacy of victims or officers is understandable and is indeed exempt from disclosure under law.

The problem is that the police department has lumped the formal requests of 17 different journalists into one large review request to the attorney general. Each of these journalists has requested different things, and each of them should require a separate legal review.

For example, one journalist asked for information about the network security of the link between the police's robot control center and the robot itself—an interesting request, but one that has both future safety implications and nothing at all to do with Motherboard's requests. The Dallas Police Department tells the attorney general that some of the information requested could be "embarrassing" and subject to redaction under a "common law privacy" act, but does not state (at least in the part of the letter it released) which part of which request it believes could result in embarrassing records being released.

The department is also asking for official legal review on information that is routinely redacted without escalating the request to a higher attorney. For example, it's asked for a review of whether or not it is legally allowed to redact government credit card information, which is not at all related to my particular request and is also a no-brainer redaction that's made all the time across government agencies at the local, state, and federal level.

In lumping together all of the requests, the Dallas Police Department isn't being thorough. It's complicating 17 different requests and slowing down the potential release of simpler requests that ask for information that can't legally be redacted. Motherboard has appealed this decision and has asked for a separate legal review on our three requests.

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