WASHINGTON ― The same type of bomb-carrying robot that Dallas police used to kill a sniper who shot and killed five officers during a Black Lives Matter rally could easily be fashioned and deployed by dozens of other police forces across the country.
The robot that officers used to kill Micah Xavier Johnson is designed to find and disarm bombs, not deliver them. But after a standoff Thursday night, police outfitted the robot with an explosive device and detonated it near Johnson. Robotics experts said the incident was the first time law enforcement has used a robot in a targeted killing in the U.S.
These bomb-detecting robots are fairly inexpensive, often costing less than $10,000 each. But local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies can also request the devices at no cost through the military’s 1033 program, which gives used military equipment that would otherwise be thrown away to U.S. law enforcement agencies. The recipients have to justify a “need” for the equipment and cover the cost of transportation. The law enforcement agencies, not the military, are responsible for teaching their officers how to use the equipment.
Last year, Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone sifted through the military’s publicly available data, and found that over 200 law enforcement agencies across the country received one or more “explosive ordnance disposal” robots through the Pentagon’s program.
Credit: Center for the Study of the Drone, Bard College
It wouldn’t be difficult for other police forces to use these robots in the same way Dallas officers did. And New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on Friday suggested that Dallas could set a precedent for other law enforcement agencies.
“We have the capability. In light of what Dallas was facing, I am in full support of that,” Bratton said, referring to the use of remotely controlled killer robots. “This was an individual that killed five police officers. Why put more officers lives at risk?”
While most comparably sized cities received a handful of the robots from the military, Dallas secured 100 devices in April 2014. Ninety-nine of the robots went to Dallas’ Federal Bureau of Investigations Division, and one went to the Dallas County Sheriff Department. The Dallas FBI Division did not respond to a question about their need for such a large force of explosive ordnance disposal robots.
The data provided by the military’s Defense Logistics Agency does not typically disclose the exact type of robot provided to law enforcement. In most cases, including the Dallas listings, the device is described as “Robot, explosive ordnance disposal.” But cities in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas specifically received MarcBots, which were used by troops in Iraq to detect improvised explosive devices ― and sometimes fashioned into explosive devices ― before they were introduced to domestic police forces.
Dan Gettinger, the co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone, noted that robots are usually used by law enforcement for non-controversial purposes, like reconnaissance missions and rooting out a potential threat in a bomb-scare situation. Last year, the Dallas Police Department used a bomb-disposal robot to access an armored van during a standoff.
“But it’s unprecedented to have robots used in this type of way,” Gettinger said of the explosive-laden robot used in Dallas on Friday.
Americans have become accustomed to the idea of the government using remotely controlled killing machines in war zones abroad. But the idea of a similar tactic being deployed at home raised many of the same questions that were debated in the early days of drone warfare.
Minimizing the risk to law enforcement is a good thing. But does the minimization of risk lower the bar for officers to deploy lethal force? Will the use of killer robots evolve faster than the policies that should regulate them?
Whether the questions are answered, Gettinger said that if officers have the devices, they’re likely to use them when they can.
“If law enforcement sees the opportunity to use a robot in place of a human law enforcement officer, they’re going to take that opportunity,” he said.
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