Army veteran Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, has been identified as the alleged sniper who shot 12 police officers, killing five, during a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in Dallas. He will also go down in history as the first man on U.S. soil to be killed by a bomb-equipped robot deployed by domestic law enforcement. Is this lethal force by robot justified and, furthermore, legal? Experts and pundits say it is, but with caveats.
In a press conference on Friday, Chief David Brown said Johnson was angered by the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and wanted to kill white people—specifically white officers—in retaliation. For hours, officials attempted to negotiate with Johnson, who was holed up on the second floor of a parking garage at El Centro Community College in downtown Dallas. Once talks broke down and gunfire was exchanged, Brown said police simply had “no other option than to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was. Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased as a result of a detonation of the bomb.”
While commonly used to diffuse bombs instead of detonating them, robots have been employed as weaponry before and were marketed as such almost a decade ago. In a 2007 Wired article, a manufacturer claimed one of its models could be furnished with the following accessories:
- Multi-shot TASER electronic control device with laser-dot aiming.
- Loudspeaker and audio receiver for negotiations.
- Night vision and thermal cameras.
- Choice of weapons for lethal or less-than-lethal responses:
- 40 mm grenade launcher – 2 rounds
- 12-gage shotgun – 5 rounds
- FN303 less-lethal launcher – 15 rounds
Despite the above sales pitch, police departments had not outfitted their robots with the accouterments offered. However, the robots have been used in the non-lethal captures of suspects around the country since, and are usually equipped with tear gas or other chemical munitions.
Dallas police appear to have used a Marcbot-IV EOD robot, which is unique to diffusion, according to Peter W. Singer, strategist and author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Singer also revealed in a tweet that the robot was “jury-rigged” with “claymore (and) duct tape.” (It should be noted that he later told Mashable he didn't mean that Dallas police had literally rigged anything, but instead used the robot “in a way different than the design and in a way that there's no training manual or organizational plan for.”)
One is expressly designed for war, firing a missile, and the other is a bomb disposal robot, so jury-rigged.— Peter W. Singer (@peterwsinger) July 11, 2016
At the time of this writing, the Dallas Police Department has not commented on its lethal use of force via robot, but it does raise a myriad of ethical and practical questions. Advancements in technology and access to previously owned military weaponry have given domestic law enforcement a “leg up” in fighting crime. If there is a real and present danger to police or the public, it may matter less what is used to squash a threat if the action is indeed justified, as it appears to have been in Johnson’s case. But what happens in cases where the answers are not so cut and dry? Will a robot still be deployed and if so, would it come bearing tear gas or something far more sinister? Drones have been used in military strikes for a while now, but have been no less controversial given a significant loss of civilian life. It is possible police could face the same level of contention with their employment of this newfound technology.
In 1997, the Pentagon started a program giving unused weapons and accessories to domestic law enforcement agencies, which so far have received $6 billion worth of goods. The program came under fire almost two decades later, when newly militarized police departments used the weaponry to quell protests around the country, most notably in Ferguson, MO., after the shooting death of Michael Brown in August 2015. Less than a year later, U.S. President Barack Obama reduced the program’s reach considerably, but police can still acquire all the basics needed, such as riot gear, guns, and armored vehicles.
And what of Johnson, who appears to be as much the product of a broken system as he is a victim? He was an American citizen and veteran, killed by drone on U.S. soil. He will always be a suspect in the crime. He will never have his day in court. His death is the first of its kind, but it certainly won’t be the last. The Pandora’s box has been opened, and as Singer tweeted, “Technology is a tool. Tools are used the way they’re designed and then people improvise and find new uses for them.”