DPD’s Use Of A Robot To Kill Micah Johnson Raises A Litany Of Concerns.
When Wired for War author Peter W. Singer told the Los Angeles Times that “the use of robots is… increasing on the civilian side” and that their use is “no longer the stuff of science fiction,” the implication was that, until very recently, the idea of taking out a police suspect with a bomb strapped to a robot was the stuff of books and movies.
It’s no surprise, then, that the ethical issues surrounding the use of robots by police departments has put the brows of many lawyers and armchair tacticians in a permanent furrow. Suddenly, the robot-as-weapon question has been elevated to the same level in the national discourse as questions over police drones and mandatory body cameras.
The majority of commentators, both on social media and in the press, seem to be of the opinion that the Dallas Police Department’s actions of deploying a robot to kill Micah Johnson after his alleged shooting spree in Downtown Dallas were justifiable. DPD police chief David Brown certainly stands firmly in that camp, saying he’d “do it again presented with the same circumstance.” New York City police commissioner William J Bratton agrees, telling The New York Times that “this is an individual that killed five police officers. So God bless ’em.” And then there’s Ryan Calo, an assistant professor of law at University of Washington in Seattle, who in the same LA Times article in which Singer is quoted says that “any court would absolve these officers and would do so on the basis of the fact that they were authorized to use force.”
For others, though, whether or not the officers were actually authorized to use force in this situation is the crux of the issue. It’s possible, says one local criminal defense attorney who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, that the compelling image of the robot (one likely bolstered locally by the fact that 1987’s RoboCop was filmed in Dallas) might actually be distracting commentators from more basic civil rights issues — and, in turn, the questions that are at the very basis of the Black Lives Matter movement.
For this lawyer, the main problem with the way the Dallas Police Department took out Johnson may not be that it used a robot to do it, but that they did it at all.
“The problem is, [the DPD] made a decision to take him out as an expedient way of dealing with him, not based on some imminent lethal threat that he posed,” the lawyer says. “If he’s in a stand-off with [the DPD] — and that’s what it is, it’s just a stand-off — then they have some obligation to just wait it out, unless they can find a way to take him. And when I say ‘take him,’ I mean arrest him — peacefully, if possible. If in an effort to arrest him peacefully a shootout begins and they have to use lethal force, then that’s a totally different circumstance.”
For this lawyer and many others, the question remains: Did the Dallas police have enough information to proceed with the elimination of their suspect? According to the letter of the law, the use of deadly force is only authorized in the face of imminent danger. That means that, no matter how hideous Johnson’s crimes may have been up until that point, unless he was posing an immediate threat to an officer or civilian in the very moment that C4-laden robot was sent in, then he was robbed of his right to a fair trial. And that right is guaranteed to everyone in this country — even, tragic though the case may be, to those who commit crimes like this Johnson’s.
As Keith Abney, a professor of ethics at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, told Time magazine, “One can wonder why, if they could send in a teleoperated robot with C4 to kill the suspect, why they couldn’t instead equip the robot with knockout gas or some other nonlethal agent to capture the suspect, instead of killing him.”
Ed Obayashi, a police officer and attorney, took a similar view of the matter in the pages of the LA Times. For him, taking the suspect out with a bomb was “a tactic of last resort.” And, for these commentators, it wasn’t clear that the Dallas Police Department was at that point yet.
“It is possible that they made a decision based on circumstances that could justify the use of lethal force,” says the Dallas lawyer with whom we spoke.
But it’s not entirely clear that this is the case. And one fact in particular — namely, that police chief Brown authorized the bomb plan from afar — has these commentators wondering about the legality of DPD’s decision to kill.
While speaking with NPR about the DPD’s decision to use the bomb, Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings said the following: “This was a man that we gave plenty of options to to give himself up peacefully. And we spent a lot of time talking. He had a choice to come out and we would not harm, or stay in and we would. He picked the latter.”
The trouble with this description is that, to some, it sounds as though the clock simply ran out for Johnson — that the DPD decided to execute him in light of what he had already done, rather than for his capacity to harm in the exact moment in which force was used.
For those outraged by the events of that July 7 evening, this likely seems like splitting hairs; it is difficult not to think of the perpetrator’s punishment in this case as fitting to the crime. Moreover, it is difficult to worry about the direct imminence of danger in that situation when so much damage had already been done. But, in fact, it is this issue — the right to fair treatment in the eyes of the law — that is at the very core of the Black Lives Matter movement. Philando Castile, when he was senselessly robbed of his life, was killed because the officer who killed him assumed he was guilty; that officer then wrongly took the matter into his own hands, circumventing the law. And, as difficult as it is to say, if — and this is a big if — the DPD circumvented the law in executing Johnson, then both Castile and Johnson’s deaths are symptoms of the same malady, that there exists in our society an uneven application of the law.
And still for others, the concern over the robot issue is that the precedent established by its use might make other police departments more likely to use their robots to similar ends. As said Rick Nelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it in The New York Times, “The further we remove the officer from the use of force and the consequences that come with it, the easier it becomes to use that tactic.”
That is why, for many, the questions raised over the legality of DPD deploying a robot early Friday morning are so important. If physical distance between law enforcement and citizens that is created by these robots makes it even easier for the former to kill the latter, then that is a clear problem. Officers finding it too easy to kill people has been the issue all along.
That’s why making sense of the situation on July 7 is so important.