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The Consequences of Using a Robot With a Bomb to Kill

Raymond Wambsgans/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Police in Cleveland show off their bomb squad robot.

From Texas Standard:

While police, media, and citizens piece together the details of the shooting of police officers in Dallas last week, we still are left with many questions. One of which surrounds the use of police tactics. In a never-before-seen measure, Dallas Police Negotiators used a robot armed with a bomb to end a prolonged standoff with the shooter. That tactic has now called into question the legality of such weapons and their deployment.

Philip Lyons, College of Criminal Justice dean at Sam Houston State University, says the difference between using a robot and ambushing a suspect with guns is that it’s unprecedented.

“The police have used bombs at least on one other occasion that I'm aware of, but didn't do it remotely through the use of a robot," he says.

In one 1985 case, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a home occupied by the MOVE organization. The police and the organization had been engaged in an active firefight for some time before police made the decision to drop the bomb on the home – but it wasn't the only building destroyed. Neighborhood homes near the bombed site caught fire, and some children were killed. The neighborhood was primarily African-American, which did not bode well for the police.

Lyons says it is possible that the similar case of a gunman targeting police officers in Dallas last week could open the door for more incidents involving technology to catch a perpetrator.

"We're going to probably have to have some conversations around that possibility,” Lyons says. “Obviously technology is advancing and sometimes the law and policy and practice struggle to keep up with that in ways that are acceptable to the communities that we serve."

Lyons says one of the chief concerns of using a robot with a bomb attached to its extension to kill a suspect is the optics.

"It's going to be perceived by many people as a step toward greater militarization of the police,” he says, “and may intensify the view that some people have that the police are at war with them."

Is this use legal? Lyons says this is something for the courts to decide.

"In this case it will probably turn on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures,” he says. “I think that the courts would probably construe the shooter to have been in constructive custody – that is, even though he was not physically in the custody of the police, his freedom of movement was so restricted. Whenever someone is in police custody, constructive or actual, the police have to behave reasonably."

But a lot of the legality of the case boils down to perceptions, Lyons says.

“Obviously police officers were in harm's way, so I'm sure the decision was made on the basis of trying to minimize the exposure of officers to danger,” he says. “There are, however, other considerations. ... The only two times in American policing history that bombs have been deployed (they) have both been deployed against African-Americans - even though African-Americans are only 12 percent of the population. If this is going to fuel those feelings further, might it be case that the short-term benefits of minimizing harm to officers may be offset by greater long-term consequences as other people may decide to take up arms against police."

Post by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

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