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. 


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