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Use of robot to kill Dallas gunman may be first for U.S. police

"It appears to be the first intentional use of a lethally armed robot by the police in the United States," University of California at Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh said Friday.

By Doug G. Ware
Use of robot to kill Dallas gunman may be first for U.S. police
A police Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosives robot is seen here during a demonstration event. Early Friday, the Dallas Police Department deployed what is believed to have been a modified bomb disposal robot, outfitted with an explosive device, to kill a suspected gunman who authorities believe was involved in the ambush shooting deaths of five police officers late Thursday during a peaceful "Black Lives Matter" protest. File Photo by Jordan Tan/Shutterstock

DALLAS, July 8 (UPI) -- In the hours following one of the nation's deadliest attacks on police officers, the Dallas Police Department may have also made history as the first U.S. law enforcement agency to deploy a tactical robot to kill an assailant.

As police searched for those responsible for killing five police officers and wounding nine other people at a Black Lives Matter protest near downtown Dallas late Thursday, they cornered a gunman in the parking garage of a nearby college and negotiated with him for hours, without success.

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Ultimately, police said, the standoff boiled down to two options: Send in officers to try and apprehend the gunman or send in an armed robot to remotely remove the threat.

Commanders settled on option two.

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"We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place [an explosive] device on its extension," Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a news conference Friday. "Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger."

The gunman, believed to be 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson, was killed by the robot and no additional officers were harmed.

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Video: CBS News

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The robot Dallas police used early Friday was not designed as a killer android. Rather, it was a typical bomb disposal device that had been modified and repurposed specifically to roll up to the gunman and detonate. With wheels for mobility and a manipulator arm to strap explosives to, it became the nation's first deployed killer police bot out of a matter of necessity, and convenience.

"Technology is a tool. Tools are used the way they're designed, and then people improvise and find new uses for them," technological warfare expert Peter W. Singer told The Guardian Friday.

Police departments and other agencies have used robotic equipment for years to neutralize explosive devices or contain suspicious items at crime scenes, but Friday's deployment of an offensive robot whose lone objective was to end the life of a perpetrator may be unprecedented in American law enforcement.

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"As far as I know, it appears to be the first intentional use of a lethally armed robot by the police in the United States," University of California at Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh told the Guardian.

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"I'm not aware of officers using a remote-controlled device as a delivery mechanism for lethal force," former officer and police expert Seth Stoughton told The Atlantic Friday. "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."

Those issues are legal and ethical. Friday's deployment was a response to an atypical and dire criminal threat in which officers felt they had no other choice but to kill an uncooperative gunman. Common use of offensive killer robots on American streets of the future, however, could raise concerns over the right to due process.

Peter Singer/Twitter

Singer told NBC News Friday that using robots, also known as MARCbots, for remote delivery of lethal force has been used by U.S. troops, but not U.S. police departments.

Between 2006 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense has distributed nearly 500 bomb detonator robots to American law enforcement agencies through the Pentagon's Law Enforcement Support Office, according to a report by National Public Radio two years ago.

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Records show that the Dallas Police Department owns a MARCbot. However, it wasn't immediately known whether officers used that unit to kill Johnson, or a Northrop Grumman Remotec Andros F6A or F6B, a highly customizable unit often utilized by military and police agencies.

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Tactical offensive robots were first deployed overseas in war zones, like Iraq and Afghanistan, to kill enemy combatants. The idea that such a militarized method might now be necessary on U.S. streets during peacetime is unnerving for some.

"Under federal constitutional law, excessive-force claims against the police are governed by the Fourth Amendment. But we typically examine deadly force by the police in terms of an immediate threat to the officer or others. It's not clear how we should apply that if the threat is to a robot -- and the police may be far away," Joh said. "In other words, I don't think we have a framework for deciding objectively reasonable robotic force. ... This surely won't be the last instance we see police robots."

Matt Blaze/Twitter

Some say the legal and ethical concerns should be minimal in situations like the one Dallas officers faced.

"I'm sorry, but I don't see all these 'new' issues. It's quite obvious that threats to a robot shouldn't trigger deadly force, but in this case, the threat was to the police and the public," U.S. military veteran and constitutional lawyer David French wrote in the National Review on Friday. "When lethal force is justified, the last thing the cops want or need is a 'fair fight.' Exposing themselves to initiate the final confrontation with Johnson would only give him exactly what he wanted -- one last chance to kill police."

"The military has many missions, but at its core is about dominating and eliminating an enemy," Stoughton said. "Policing has a different mission: protecting the populace. That core mission, as difficult as it is to explain sometimes, includes protecting some people who do some bad things. It includes not using lethal force when it's possible to not."

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That very issue -- police seeming to use lethal force on two suspects this week, one pulled over for a broken tail light -- is what brought protesters to the Dallas streets on Thursday night.

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Stoughton, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina, also said any impending legal questions over police usage of the killer robots can be easily answered.

"If someone is shooting at the police, the police are ... authorized to eliminate that threat by shooting them, or by stabbing them with a knife, or by running them over with a vehicle," he said. "Once lethal force is justified and appropriate, the method of delivery -- I doubt it's legally relevant."

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