Last week in Dallas, Texas, shots echoed through the crowded downtown scene of what started as a peaceful and cooperative protest. Things went from calm to chaos very quickly, leading police to falsely identify a suspect on social media, pursue a vehicle with over a dozen patrol cars on the freeway, and to fatally bomb the alleged shooter after a standoff and exchange of gunfire later that evening.
Images from earlier in the evening featured police officers posing for photos with protesters, in unity with citizens. Dallas’ police force, after all, had earned a reputation for its community outreach and positive interaction with its citizenry.
In a matter of seconds, the scene went from calm to chaotic. A suspect was identified by the department on Twitter, along with a photo that appeared on every news network covering the situation. Unfortunately, that suspect turned out to not only be totally innocent, but to have been actively assisting the police on the ground after the shooting started. In another part of town, over a dozen patrol cars pulled over and apprehended people that they believed were involved in the shooting, having fled the scene shortly after.
Through all the chaos, the person the police now believe acted alone, Micah Johnson, was cornered in a parking garage and killed with an explosive using a robot designed to assist soldiers on the battlefield.
“We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was,” David Brown, the Dallas police chief, said at a news conference. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”
Indeed the use of the robot, which required a human to give the command to detonate the C4 explosive it was carrying, ended the standoff without any further police lives lost.
The benefits of robots on the battlefield
There is no denying that drones and other robotic systems are saving U.S. soldier lives on the battlefield. The United States has used drone strikes to take out some of its most notorious foes. As an alternative to ground troops, it makes practical sense. You put less of our lives at risk by using a drone fitted with sophisticated targeting systems that can be replaced.
According to the official report released by the office of the Director of National Intelligence, between 2,372 and 2,581 enemy combatants were killed across 473 drone strikes that took place between January 20, 2009 and December 31, 2015. It’s also being reported that 64 to 116 non-combatant civilians were also killed in those strikes.
Military robotic units aren’t just limited to flying drones. Unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) are popular choices for military. Systems including the Foster-Miller TALON provide a wide range of support to troops including reconnaissance and bomb disposal. These vehicles are designed to go where troops can’t, access buildings that may be too dangerous for human entry, and provide real-time visual data from the front lines.
The case against using robots to kill civilians at home
The Dallas Police Department used a bomb-wielding robot to kill Micah Johnson. The explosion enabled officers to incapacitate him without putting them within line-of-sight to Johnson, a move that Dallas’ mayor and police chief insist saved lives.
When it comes to the robotic aspect, these machines offer additional insight and perspective. They enable bomb squads to investigate suspicious packages and dispose of explosives. They empower swat teams to survey a scene prior to making entry. These robots have been used effectively by police forces for years, but until now, they have been used as a means of solely preserving life. Now, they’re being used to destroy it.
This action sets a new precedent in how these robotic devices are being used at home. This is the first known case of a United States police department using a remotely-placed explosive to kill a suspect. Where gunfire and other means of lethal force are unfortunately common practice by police in the United States, using a robot to administer that force is new.
This was an execution administered by a police force in order to end a standoff that had already cost the department five lives. This raises the question whether the robot could have been fitted with something less lethal. Could a flash-bang, a small non-lethal explosive that emits a bright light and deafening bang in order to disorient suspects, have been used? What about tear gas?
Despite the obviously hostile situation, due process was not a possibility for the shooter. Where humans can target extremities and disable a suspect in some cases, an explosion is less specific. The crime scene is essentially destroyed, as is the possibility of interrogating the suspect.
To many, using equipment and methods designed for the military at home raises new questions. If the police are allowed to detonate explosives in order to kill civilians, where does the militarization of law enforcement agencies stop? Are we heading towards a future out of science fiction where police are patrolling our streets, enforcing laws and making life-and-death decisions on our behalf?
The case for using robots to against civilians in specific cases
Micah Johnson was highly trained, and he managed to survive over an hour of exchange with the police. Before he was killed, he managed to kill five police officers and wound seven others. He indicated that he had explosives planted in areas unknown, which made entry by live police officers potentially more dangerous. Indeed when police searched his home, they found binary explosive components similar to those used by shooting enthusiasts to create explosive targets for effect.
This was also no autonomous detonation. A human controlled the robot’s movement, camera positioning, and the articulated arm that held and detonated the explosive. It could be argued that this was no different than a sniper zeroing in on a suspect from afar and pulling the trigger.
This was a case where police are stating there simply wasn’t any alternative. We, the public, will likely not know the true story behind the events of that night for some time. It is easy to sit back and make assumptions as to whether or not there was any other way. But one thing is clear, the debate over whether or not this should become a part of law enforcement’s main bag of tricks has just begun.