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Using a Bomb Robot to Kill a Suspect Is an Unprecedented Shift in Policing

What Dallas authorities did on Thursday raises concerns about due process and the use of remotely triggered lethal force by law enforcement.

Authorities in Dallas used a "bomb robot" to kill one of multiple suspects in a sniping spree that left five police officers dead on Thursday, an unprecedented act in the history of American policing that raises concerns about due process and the use of remotely triggered lethal force by law enforcement.

The robot was used after an hours-long standoff to kill Micah Johnson, who police believe "did some of the shooting," according to Dallas Police Chief David Brown.

[Read also: The Legal and Ethical Ramifications of Letting Police Kill Suspects With Robots]

Brown told reporters Friday that prior to using the robot, Dallas police exchanged gunfire with Johnson on the second floor of a parking garage.

"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. "Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger."

Brown raises an obvious question that the US military has grappled with: If a shooter is holed up in a building, who do you send, a person or a bot?

Details about the specific model of robot used and whether the "device" Brown referred to was a bomb belonging to the Dallas Police Department, the suspect's own device, or something used to trigger a bomb placed by the suspect are still unavailable, and Dallas Police did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment. Brown said "the suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb."

Three other suspects in the shooting spree, which took place during a demonstration against police killings and left seven wounded, are currently in custody.

Brown's description is consistent with a controlled explosion, a wartime bomb disposal tactic in which a robot drops a charge near a suspected explosive.

The sort of ground robots used in those scenarios—and now the one that played out in Dallas—are not autonomous, and are usually used strictly for bomb disposal. These devices have been weaponized, however, as seen with US military bomb bots fitted with machine guns. (The military says the guns are for shooting suspected explosive devices.) In the United States, Remotec bomb disposal robots used by law enforcement have been outfitted with guns that are designed to detonate bombs in a controlled manner.

For a sense of how these bomb robots work (caveat: it's unclear what model DPD had), watch this Motherboard primer.

Peter W. Singer, an expert in military technology and robot warfare at the New America Foundation, tweeted that this is the first known incident of a domestic police force using a robot to kill a suspect. Singer tweeted that in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers have strapped claymore mines to the $8,000 MARCbot using duct tape to turn them into jury-rigged killing devices. Singer says all indications are that the Dallas Police Department did something similar in this case—it improvised to turn a surveillance robot into a killing machine.

Improvised device or not, the concerns here mirror a debate that's been going on for a few years now: Should law enforcement have access to armed drones, or, for that matter, weaponized robots? In 2013 Kentucky Senator Rand Paul staged a 13-hour filibuster that was focused entirely on concerns about the use of armed drones on US soil. Last year, North Dakota became the first state to legalize nonlethal, weaponized drones for its police officers.

"When domestic law enforcement officers can use force from a distance, it may become too easy for them to do so, and the inevitable result will be that these weapons are over-used," Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a blog post while North Dakota was considering that bill. "When officers are not physically present, their perception of a situation and their judgment about when to apply force is more likely to be flawed, non-targets are more likely to be injured, and excessive amounts of force are more likely to be applied."

Stanley also noted that drones and other remote weapons would "increase the militarization of the police."

The ability for police to remotely kill suspects raises due process concerns. If a shooter is holed up and alone, can they be qualified as an imminent threat to life? Are there clear protocols about when a robot can be used to engage a suspect versus when a human needs to engage him or her? When can the use of lethal force be administered remotely?

Brian Castner, a Motherboard contributor and former US military explosive ordnance disposal technician, said the incident in Dallas "makes him queasy." Castner, who served two tours in Iraq defusing roadside bombs, said he was involved in a similar case there, when a bomb disposal robot was used to deliver an explosive and kill someone. "We eventually did it and I'm still not sure it was the right call."