In Defense of That Killer Robot — and the Choice to Use It

You have the right to remain skeptical, but expect more robots doing policing in the future.
You have the right to remain skeptical, but expect more robots doing policing in the future.

In every fight, whether a gun battle or a boxing match, there's something called initiative. It's not easy to describe, but it exists. Loosely put, it means one side is reacting to the other and therefore can predict their opponent's moves.  

Those who have the initiative, win. Those who don't have to find some way to regain it.  And the best way to do that is to do something unexpected.

During last week's fatal ambush and standoff with police, gunman Micah Johnson had the initiative. He chose the time, place and style of fighting when he gunned down unsuspecting cops from his perch over a Black Lives Matter protest march. He knew what the police would do: Put themselves at risk to get the civilians out of the way and then cordon off the area so he couldn't escape. After his initial assault, Johnson hunkered down in a secure spot in El Centro College's C Building, out of the line of sight of police sharpshooters.

The last thing Johnson did to keep the odds stacked in his favor is to tell police he had a bomb. It's law enforcement 101: If someone says they have a bomb, you must proceed as if they are telling the truth. Although Johnson had bomb making equipment at his home, no explosives were found on the scene. The claim alone, however, ensured the police would be cautious and limited in their choice of responses to end the standoff. This is especially true when the avowed purpose of the attack is to "kill white officers." Any officer that gets close enough to shoot or incapacitate Johnson would be close enough to get blown up. 

Now we are at the sticking point. Reasonable people at this point in the narrative might say, why not just be patient. In fact, there has been a chorus who say that Johnson had been cornered and therefore neutralized.

The most coherent argument is summarized by Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. "If the suspect was holed up and there was nobody in immediate danger from him, the police could have waited him out," Cohn told the progressive website Common "They should have arrested him and brought him to trial."

Police have a duty to not use lethal force when it's avoidable. Cohn knew this. Chief David Brown knew it. SWAT commanders on the scene knew it. And Johnson knew it, too. After all, it's in the playbook. 

But then again, there's that bomb threat. When Johnson introduced explosives into the mix, it's hard to argue that "no one was in immediate danger." Any officer getting close to that part of El Centro would have been in danger of a possible explosion. That is not just some legal dodge, especially not when the emergency rooms are filled with victims and officers are trading gunshots with the perpetrator. It's a good reason to end the standoff in a deliberate, decisive way.

It appears SWAT saw this justification in the playbook and then used it to call an audible. They brought in something no one expected, especially not Johnson. He expected them to wait him out, enabling him to cause maximum disturbance and, in the end, either be taken alive to enjoy his media soapbox or to go out shooting even more officers.  

Instead, the police sent in a Remotec ANDROS robot. This is the point when DPD regained the initiative.  

Here's the thing about 'bots. They are best used for jobs that are too dirty or dangerous for humans. (Recent examples: Going on one-way trips to Mars or cleaning leaking nuclear waste tanks.) Police and soldiers tend to be brave but the best ones are not suicidal. Professionals don't mind robots taking their jobs when it means they don't have to kick in a door or check out a roadside bomb up close.   

But the threshold moment came with the police's choice to arm the robot with C4 explosives and send it in to take out the shooter. In national security wonk terms, DPD made a "unmanned ground vehicle" into a "vehicle-borne improvised explosive device."   

"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," Mayor Mike Rawlings said at a press conference. "Other options would have exposed our officers in grave danger."

DPD says they armed the claw and arm extension "with an explosive device of C4 plus det [detonation] cord. The weight of the total charge was one pound."

A pound of C4 is plenty enough to kill someone, especially if set off in a confined space. Verify this by watching Youtube clips of the TV show Mythbusters or this video from an Army demonstration (with a 1 pound C4 blast at 1:00.)   

No one is making any bones about it: Dallas police made the choice to send in the robot to kill Johnson.   
This is historic, but only in terms of delivery method. There hasn't been another time police used a robot to rub out a suspect, and let's not pretend that bombs are (or should be) the typical tool of choice for police. But last week was certainly not the first time police have deemed a situation too dangerous to capture someone alive. And that bomb threat certainly gave DPD the leeway to end this quickly and on their terms.     

Would there have been this outcry if a police sniper put a .308 round through his head? Doubt it. Being exterminated by a robot taps into some primal, limbic fear akin to what we feel when contemplating a shark attack. Something inhuman is hunting us. Whatever that predator is, beast or machine, becomes a mythic, cultural icon.        

This 2015 Facebook post shows Dallas SWAT using explosives, not to kill but gain a surprise entry.
This 2015 Facebook post shows Dallas SWAT using explosives, not to kill but gain a surprise entry.
Dallas SWAT Facebook

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Another reason for the queasy feeling over using the Remotec to kill Johnson is the military heritage of explosive disposal robots. Demand for them in Iraq and Afghanistan accelerated 'bot development, and real-world experiences proved their worth to police departments. The Pentagon aided their rise with transfer programs.

This lineage lumps them in with other military equipment and tactics that have transitioned into civilian policing. The problem being, armored cars and tear-gas spewing grenade launchers come off as overly aggressive and repressive when misused against civilians. Until now, EOD robots could be seen as defensive machines that only saved lives. Now robots are at the center of the debate over the militarization of police.  

If there's a negative gut reaction to the militarization of police, it's because there should be. If the Pentagon is going to continue flooding local police departments with military surplus, there should be some thought given to providing training and establishing boundaries. 

But police are the first responders to terrorist-style attacks, like the one the city faced on Thursday. They need to be ready and have gear on hand. That is what people call an "ugly truth." As a nation, police and civilians alike, we'd better find a way to get comfortable with the responsible use of military-style equipment, because this week's incident in Dallas will not be the last.

Here's one last thought, just to put the thought into people's heads. The police shootings that sparked Black Lives Matter protests were done by flesh and blood humans making mistakes that stem from fear, adrenaline, or anger. All of these reactions are mitigated by distance, distance provided by a robot.

Future routine police traffic stops could start with a robot making the initial approach, with an officer safely monitoring from a vehicle. The 'bot would be equipped with a video camera, a scanner to run licenses, a breathalyzer and a Taser. Someone unexpectedly reaching for a wallet doesn't seem so threatening through a cop's video screen. The robot gives an officer more time than a split second to exercise good judgement. 

Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. But robot lives don't matter at all. Why not let them assume some of the risk for police and civilians alike?

Sound like a ludicrous fantasy of a sci-fi writer or tech magazine editor? Take a look around at the state-of the-art robots that companies are researching, and the ones appearing on our streets. These machines can do these jobs, so the question is should they. 

Fewer police robots? Not so fast. Let's throw old DVDs of Terminator movies into the garbage and at least consider getting more robots out there. By putting a machine in between the police and citizens, there could be an opportunity to avoid the tragic bloodshed that prompts protests to begin with. Some might call that an affront to the idea of community policing, but others would call it a "win-win." 

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