The Dallas Shootings and Robots as Weapons

July 11, 2016

Dallas PoliceThe decision by Dallas police to use a robot to kill alleged sniper, Micah Xavier Johnson, has generated discussion regarding appropriate use of automated systems as lethal weapons.  In the past, this discussion has most often focused on use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, in combat and against suspected terrorists.  The action in Dallas expands that discussion to include deadly force applied by automated systems in the context of civilian law enforcement.

After the Dallas shootings, police identified Johnson as one of the shooters, and managed to contain him.  During a siege that lasted several hours, the police attempted to negotiate with Johnson, but ultimately concluded that additional negotiations were fruitless.  They determined that direct action was necessary to end the standoff.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerDallas police then used a robot bomb-disarming device to deliver an explosive charge that killed the suspect.  The decision to use the robot and bomb was reportedly made by authorities based on concern that a direct assault by officers would most likely place those officers at excessive and unnecessary risk.  This incident apparently marks the first time that civilian police have delivered a lethal attack through use of a robot.  Previously, police use of robots in emergency situations generally involved information-gathering and bomb disposal.

Some observers expressed concern that the action by the Dallas police represents a substantial and troubling, shift in police use of automated devices and systems.  In effect, the action serves to “weaponize” automated systems that had not been previously used by civilian authorities as delivery platforms for deadly force.

Although potentially troubling, such use of automated systems seems inevitable.  Once a decision has been made by police to authorize use of deadly force, all available systems and technologies are likely to be applied if they are viewed as offering the best prospects for ending the emergency with the least risk of injury to innocent parties.  That range of available technical options now routinely includes robots, drones, and other automated devices and systems, thus those technologies will most likely be increasingly in demand for use in emergency situations.

Concerns expressed by some that the Dallas action could lead to a “slippery slope” problem as police come to rely more and more on automated systems to deliver deadly force are legitimate.  Robots, drones, and other automated systems will almost certainly be increasingly viewed as a preferred tactical option presenting the lowest risk of harm to police.  The challenge will be to apply the automated systems only under those circumstances in which they also offer the lowest risk of harm to other innocent parties and the greatest chance of successfully ending the emergency situation.

It remains to be seen whether or not police use of automated devices and systems to deliver deadly force can be managed in a way which is consistent with civil liberties, public safety, and community outreach.  The actions in Dallas suggest, however, that robots and other automated platforms are now fully embraced by law enforcement as viable weapons options.