On 7 July 2016, what was a peaceful protest in Dallas devolved into anarchy when a sniper shot and killed five officers and wounded several more; hours after the news broke, police confirmed that a suspect was killed via the use of a bomb robot.
Early reports out of Dallas were chaotic, with both police and individuals on the scene unsure of what precisely occurred before and during the shooting. Police in Dallas widely circulated a photograph of a man first labeled a suspect (and then a person of interest), later identified as peaceful protester Mark Hughes:
— ABC Action News (@abcactionnews) July 8, 2016
Update: We now know full name as Micah Xavier Johnson. Johnson had no criminal record or known ties to terrorism. https://t.co/cMmTxMTi7T
— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) July 8, 2016
Conflicting early reports indicated Johnson died of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound,” and details remained hazy as to whether law enforcement believed the suspect acted alone. Social media users objected to the use of specific photographs of Johnson, as well as referring to him in a manner that many believed purposefully evoked the memory of Malcolm X:
Micah Xavier Johnson is ONE of the shooters and yet CNN singles him out and labels him “Micah X.” We see what y’all are trying to do
— Ogechi (@tattedpoc) July 8, 2016
Reports out of Dallas remained fluid and often contradictory into the afternoon of 8 July 2016, but the manner in which Johnson died became a subject of interest. According to Dallas police, Johnson was killed by a bomb robot shortly after 1:30 AM local time. Dallas Police Chief David Brown and Mayor Mike Rawlings answered media questions during a press conference on 8 July 2016; Brown explains the manner in which Johnson was killed at around the 3:30 mark:
In the mourning over the murders of five police officers in Dallas, and relief that the standoff had ended, one unusual detail stuck out: the manner in which police killed one suspect after negotiations failed. “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,” Chief David Brown said in a press conference Friday morning. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased … He’s been deceased because of a detonation of the bomb.” That use of a robot raises questions about the way police adopt and use new technologies. While many police forces have adopted robots—or, more accurately, remote-controlled devices—for uses like bomb detonation or delivery of non-lethal force like tear gas, using one to kill a suspect is at least highly unusual and quite possibly unprecedented. “I’m not aware of officers using a remote-controlled device as a delivery mechanism for lethal force,” said Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina who is a former police officer and expert on police methods. “This is sort of a new horizon for police technology. Robots have been around for a while, but using them to deliver lethal force raises some new issues.”
An expert in robotics reiterated the assessment in an ongoing report published by the Associated Press and via Twitter:
A robotics expert says Dallas police appear to be the first law enforcement agency to use a robot to kill. Peter W. Singer, of the New America Foundation, says the killing of a suspect in Thursday night’s fatal shooting of five police officers is the first instance of which he’s aware of a robot being used lethally by police.
Vice noted that the devices were largely associated with bomb disposal, not detonation:
Authorities in Dallas used a “bomb robot” to kill one of multiple suspects in a sniping spree that left five police officers dead on Thursday, an unprecedented act in the history of American policing that raises concerns about due process and the use of remotely triggered lethal force by law enforcement.
The sort of ground robots used in those scenarios—and now the one that played out in Dallas—are not autonomous, and are usually used strictly for bomb disposal. These devices have been weaponized, however, as seen with US military bomb bots fitted with machine guns. (The military says the guns are for shooting suspected explosive devices.) In the United States, Remotec bomb disposal robots used by law enforcement have been outfitted with guns that are designed to detonate bombs in a controlled manner.
Fusion described the “unusual way” in which the standoff ended:
The use of a robot to kill someone has taken police observers aback. Using robots to place small detonating devices next to larger bombs so that they detonate remotely has long been a tactic used by police bomb squads. And last year, a robot was used to talk a man out of suicide, after using it to deliver him a phone and pizza.
But placing a bomb on a police robot with the intention to kill a suspect—if that is, in fact, what happened—would represent a major shift in policing tactics. In fact, it may be the first “use of robot in this way in policing” in the United States, defense technology expert Peter Singer tweeted.
Quartz posited the outcome “likely won’t be the last time a remote-controlled device is used to take out a human in the US,” adding that “it raises interesting ethical questions about where bomb robots fit in police forces’ increasingly militarized approach to protecting the public.” Citing the open and ongoing nature of the investigation, Chief Brown declined to give further details about the conclusion of the standoff and reports of others possibly involved.