By Kevin Daley
City officials revealed Friday morning an early morning standoff with Micah X. Johnson ended when authorities used a robot to place an incendiary device in proximity to the suspect, who sporadically exchanged fire with Dallas police. Johnson was killed when police detonated the device.
“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,” Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings said at a press briefing Friday morning. “Other options would have exposed our officers in grave danger.”
Robots have assisted police in resolving standoffs before — Prince George’s County police used a water cannon attached to a robot to disable an armed suspect hiding in a closet in 1993. The California Highway Patrol used a similar rig to deliver pizza and a phone to a man who was threatening to throw himself from a highway overpass in 2014. Friday night’s standoff with Johnson appears to be the first time a robot has used lethal force in the law enforcement context.
A report compiled by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in 2015 found that 201 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies had purchased explosive ordnance disposal robots through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which allows law enforcement to purchase excess military equipment.
Peter Singer, a fellow at New America Foundation who specializes in emerging technologies, reported American soldiers had occasion to modify robots to deliver antipersonnel landmines into confined spaces where they believed insurgents were hiding in his 2009 book “Wired for War.”
Ryan Calo, an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington who studies the intersection between law and technology, believes the gambit by Dallas police was a lawful exercise of lethal force.
“I believe what the Dallas police did here was perfectly lawful under the circumstances,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The extreme, protracted threat posed by the perpetrator justified lethal force and no law requires officers to put themselves directly in harm’s way in order to neutralize a highly dangerous person.”
“Still,” he added, “it was a new and different tactic—which is why we are talking about it.”
Rosa Brooks, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior fellow at New America Foundation, said the constitutional calculus does not change with the platform used to neutralize a suspect.
“In the Dallas context, there is nothing unique or unprecedented about police killing an armed and dangerous suspect who posed an imminent threat, and the particular platform used — gun, bomb, poisoned umbrella — doesn’t create any particularly new issues,” she told TheDCNF.
The tactic used by Dallas police did raise at least one set eyebrows, however.
“The further we remove the officer from the use of force and the consequences that come with it, the easier it becomes to use that tactic,” Rick Nelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the New York Times. “It’s what we have done with drones in warfare.”