Dallas Police Shooting Highlights Role of Robots in Law Enforcement

Dallas—Robots have become a regular feature of combat, used by soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Dallas police’s use of such a device early Friday morning may be the first time law enforcement has deployed a robot to detonate a bomb to kill a suspect.

Dallas Police Chief David Brown said police had tried to negotiate with the suspect—identified Friday in media reports as Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25-year-old Army veteran—but talks broke down amid renewed gunfire. Four Dallas police officers as well as one Dallas transit officer were killed in an ambush where two snipers fired on officers who were monitoring what was a peaceful protest in the city Thursday evening.

“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,” Brown said in a press conference Friday. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

Apart from Johnson, three other suspects, including one woman, are being held by Dallas police.

While most of the focus today is understandably on the slain officers’ families and the continuing investigation into Johnson’s motives and actions, some discussion among technology and law enforcement experts has begun on the use of technology and lethal force by law enforcement.

“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,” Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and University of South Carolina law professor, told the Atlantic. “Once lethal force is justified and appropriate, the method of delivery—I doubt it’s legally relevant.”

After a man attacked Dallas police headquarters last year, the police used a robot to investigate and neutralize a duffel bag that eventually exploded in a nearby parking lot, as well as several pipe bombs in a van driven by the suspect, who was eventually killed by an officer.

Robots were used in the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects in 2013. A Packbot, made by Bedford, MA-based iRobot, was used to help law enforcement investigate a car driven by one of the suspects. Another robot used in such operations is called the MARCbot, or Multi-function Agile Remote Control Robot, which was developed for the Army by Exponent, an engineering consulting firm in Menlo Park, CA, according to NASA’s technology transfer program.

It’s unclear what types of robots Dallas police had at their disposal, but a department Web post stated police had obtained new equipment this past May, including new robots.

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