The Corner

Law & the Courts

I Have Absolutely No Problem With the Dallas Killer Robot

The Dallas Police Department reportedly killed suspected shooter Micah Johnson with a bomb delivered remotely by robot, a move that is raising some eyebrows:

[UC-Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh] said she was worried that the decision by police to use robots to end lives had been arrived at far too casually. “Lethally armed police robots raise all sorts of new legal, ethical, and technical questions we haven’t decided upon in any systematic way,” she said. “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.” That, Joh added, is only one condition for the use of lethal force. “In other words, I don’t think we have a framework for deciding objectively reasonable robotic force. And we need to develop regulations and policies now, because this surely won’t be the last instance we see police robots.”

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. 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. Using what was essentially a drone allowed the police to deliver lethal force without further risk to the police or to bystanders.

In fact, it’s easy to imagine circumstances where robots or drones could help save police and suspects. As The Atlantic’s David Graham notes, drones have been used to deliver tear gas — allowing the police to introduce decisive non-lethal force without exposing officers to deadly risk that might trigger return fire.

Further, if the aim of the suspect is to trigger a decisive confrontation with police, the existence of the drone option would not only frustrate his purpose (as it may have done in Dallas) it may deter future “last stand” confrontations. It may well be the case that an extremist is less willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of taking shots at a hunk of metal.

Finally, since a drone operator doesn’t face actual physical danger, he or she can more calmly and precisely choose the target — rather than confronting the fear and chaos that so often accompanies direct personal contact.

Of course (as with any weapons system) there is potential for abuse, but a drone or robot is not inherently problematic, and the guidelines for use of deadly force — to defend human life, not robotic function — are well-established. Indeed, the use of a small bomb to kill Johnson is more inherently problematic than the use of a drone. After all, the force of a bomb is far less confined and precise than the force of a bullet, but even that is not excessively dangerous in the correct, contained context.

The emphasis, however, has to be on “contained.” Just ask the citizens of Philadelphia in 1980:

There are many reasons for national soul-searching after the Dallas shootings. The use of a drone, however, is not one of them. The police robot may well have saved lives last night, and I’m glad it was used. 

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular


What We’ve Learned about Jussie Smollett

It’s been a few weeks since March 26, when all charges against Jussie Smollett were dropped and the actor declared that his version of events had been proven correct. How’s that going? Smollett’s celebrity defenders have gone quiet. His publicists and lawyers are dodging reporters. The @StandwithJussie ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Lessons of the Mueller Probe

Editor’s Note: The following is the written testimony submitted by Mr. McCarthy in connection with a hearing earlier today before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on the Mueller Report (specifically, the first volume of the report, which addresses Russia’s interference in the 2016 ... Read More

Kamala Harris Runs for Queen

I’m going to let you in on a secret about the 2020 presidential contest: Unless unforeseen circumstances lead to a true wave election, the legislative stakes will be extremely low. The odds are heavily stacked against Democrats’ retaking the Senate, and that means that even if a Democrat wins the White House, ... Read More

Why Are the Western Middle Classes So Angry?

What is going on with the unending Brexit drama, the aftershocks of Donald Trump’s election, and the “yellow vests” protests in France? What drives the growing estrangement of southern and eastern Europe from the European Union establishment? What fuels the anti-EU themes of recent European elections and ... Read More
Energy & Environment

The Climate Trap for Democrats

The more the climate debate changes, the more it stays the same. Polls show that the public is worried about climate change, but that doesn’t mean that it is any more ready to bear any burden or pay any price to combat it. If President Donald Trump claws his way to victory again in Pennsylvania and the ... Read More
White House

Sarah Sanders to Resign at End of June

Sarah Huckabee Sanders will resign from her position as White House press secretary at the end of the month, President Trump announced on Twitter Thursday afternoon. Sanders, the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, succeeded Sean ... Read More
Politics & Policy

But Why Is Guatemala Hungry?

I really, really don’t want to be on the “Nicolas Kristof Wrote Something Dumb” beat, but, Jiminy Cricket! Kristof has taken a trip to Guatemala, with a young woman from Arizona State University in tow. “My annual win-a-trip journey,” he writes. Reporting from Guatemala, he discovers that many ... Read More