The Era of Lethal Police Robots has Arrived

Dallas police detain a driver after several police officers were shot in downtown Dallas on July 7, 2016.

AP / LM Otero

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Dallas police detain a driver after several police officers were shot in downtown Dallas on July 7, 2016.

Dallas Police used a remote-controlled robot to kill one of the snipers, opening questions about the way law enforcement agencies will use new technologies.

In the mourning over the murders of five police officers in Dallas, and relief that the standoff had ended, one unusual detail stuck out: the manner in which police killed one suspect after negotiations failed.

“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,” Chief David Brown said in a press conference Friday morning. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased … He’s been deceased because of a detonation of the bomb.”

That use of a robot raises questions about the way police adopt and use new technologies. While many police forces have adopted robots—or, more accurately, remote-controlled devices—for uses like bomb detonation or delivery of non-lethal force like tear gas, using one to kill a suspect is at least highly unusual and quite possibly unprecedented.

“I’m not aware of officers using a remote-controlled device as a delivery mechanism for lethal force,” said Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina who is a former police officer and expert on police methods. “This is sort of a new horizon for police technology. Robots have been around for a while, but using them to deliver lethal force raises some new issues.”

Robotics expert Peter Singer of New America also told the Associated Press he believed the use was unprecedented.

But while there are likely to be intense ethical debates about when and how police deploy robots in this manner, Stoughton said he doesn’t think Dallas’s decision is particularly novel from a legal perspective. Because there was an imminent threat to officers, the decision to use lethal force was likely reasonable, while the weapon used was immaterial.

“The circumstances that justify lethal force justify lethal force in essentially every form,” he said. “If someone is shooting at the police, the police are, generally speaking, going to be authorized to eliminate that threat by shooting them, or by stabbing them with a knife, or by running them over with a vehicle. Once lethal force is justified and appropriate, the method of delivery—I doubt it’s legally relevant.”

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Police forces have adopted remote-controlled devices for a wide variety of tasks in recent years, from tiny to large. These tools can search for bombs, take cameras into dangerous areas, deliver tear gas or pepper spray, and even rescue wounded people. Police used one small robot in the manhunt for Boston Marathon bomber Dzohkar Tsarnaev. In May, the Dallas Police Department posted on its blog that it had acquired new robots. Other law-enforcement agencies have experimented with flying “drones,” again more correctly remotely controlled aerial vehicles. So far, those uses appear to have been solely for surveillance. The Department of Justice said in 2013 that it had used drones in the U.S. on 10 occasions.

In a few cases, forces have used remote-controlled devices to deliver non-lethal force, too, as Vice reported last year. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2014, “the Bomb Squad supported APD’s SWAT Team on November 9 at a local residence. The SWAT team requested robot assistance to assist on a barricaded subject armed with a gun. The Bomb Squad robot was able to deploy chemical munitions into the subject’s motel room, which led to the subject’s surrender.” Vice cited other news reports that involved hostage situations where robots were deployed, though the applications are sometimes vague. A remote-controlled device could also be equipped to deliver a flash-bang grenade, used to disorient suspects.

Brown didn’t explain what kind of explosive DPD attached to their device. While a department might stock flash-bangs, explosives for breaching doors, and a few other explosive devices, “I’m not aware of any police department having on hand something that is intended to be used as a weaponized explosive,” Stoughton said.

Use of remote-controlled devices by law enforcement raises a range of possible questions about when and where they are appropriate. The advent of new police technologies, from the firearm to the Taser, has often resulted in accusations of inappropriate use and recalibration in when police use them. Stoughton pointed out that prior to the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Tennessee v. Garner, the “fleeing-felon rule” gave officers the right to use lethal force to prevent a suspect in a serious crime from escaping. But the justices limited the rule, saying that firearms meant the rule was no longer current. Unless either they or civilians are in danger of death or serious bodily harm, police can only use non-lethal force to stop a fleeing felon. Similarly, the adoption of the Taser has raised questions about whether officers are too quick to use the devices when they would be better served to deescalate or use their hands.

“I think we will see similar  concerns when we’re talking about the use of robots to employ lethal force,” Stoughton said. For example, in Dallas, the police appear to have faced danger of death or serious bodily harm. But imagine a scenario in which a suspect has been shooting but is not currently firing, and in which all officers are safely covered. In such a case, police would likely not open up a gun battle. But would commanders be quicker to deploy a robot, since there would be less danger to officers? And would current lethal-force rules really justify it? There is reason to believe they would not.

The nascent questions over police use of remote-controlled devices echoes an existing argument over the military use of such tools. U.S. drone strikes overseas are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians, and the legal justifications for when and where they are used are often hotly contested. In some cases, drone strikes have killed American citizens without due process. Many civil libertarians are troubled by the implications for stateside use. In 2013, Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, mounted a 13-hour filibuster blocking the confirmation John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to direct the CIA, over the White House’s refusal to say whether it believed it could use military drones to kill American suspects on American soil. Attorney General Eric Holder later wrote Paul to say that the president does not have the authority to do so.

Move away from the realm of remote-controlled devices into the world of autonomous or partially autonomous robots that could deliver lethal, or even non-lethal, force, and the concerns mount. There’s already a heated debate over whether and how the military should deploy lethal, autonomous robots. That debate, too, could transfer to police forces. But as Stoughton noted, law enforcement serves a different purpose than the army.

“The military has many missions, but at its core is about dominating and eliminating an enemy,” he said. “Policing has a different mission: protecting the populace. That core mission, as difficult as it is to explains sometimes, includes protecting some people who do some bad things. It includes not using lethal force when it’s possible to not.”

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