The Drone Age: A Tragedy in Dallas Ushers in a New Era of Robotic Policing


On July 7th, Micah Johnson, who had served with the US Army Reserve in Afghanistan, reportedly opened fire as a civil rights protest was winding down in Dallas. The march itself was in response to the deaths of two African American men killed by police over two days on different sides of the country. Local authorities later confirmed that Johnson murdered five officers and injured seven others, along with two bystanders.

A small aspect of early reports as the situation concluded, was that a robot carrying an improvised bomb had ended the standoff. This had been done before, according to some sources, in Iraq and Afghanistan, but was said to be improvised in these settings as well. At first, I was only able to find one story that verified the practice, until a search of the type of robot mentioned showed more results, all of them in Iraq.

The initial archived piece on robotics and the military in the Winter 2009 issue of the Wilson Quarterly talked about the experiences of some soldiers using the $5000 MARCbot (Multi-Function Agile Remote-Controlled Robot), which “looks like a small toy truck with an elevated mast on which a camera is mounted” and was mainly used to inspect suspicious objects by forward patrols in Iraq (because of the terrain, these ground drones are less effective in Afghanistan).

The machines are made by Exponent, a Menlo Park, California based, “consulting firm that provides solutions to complex technical problems”. As explained by PW Singer in the article cited above, “The MARCbot isn’t just notable for its small size; it was the first ground robot to draw blood in Iraq. The U.S. soldiers jury rigged their MARCbots to carry Claymore anti-personnel mines. If they thought an insurgent was hiding in an alley, they would send a MARCbot down first and, if they found someone waiting in ambush, take him out with the Claymore.”

This bears some similarity to the events in Dallas, where a bomb disposal robot, the Remotic Andros Mark V-A1, larger and more expensive than a MARCbot, was maneuvered into the parking garage where Johnson was hiding and had been in communication with police negotiators for two hours. Rather than a Claymore, officials said the $150,000 machine carried a C4 explosive charge.

Tragically, the Dallas police had built a reputation under Chief David Brown as a progressive department implementing a variety of community policing procedures to communicate with, rather than intimidate the community. The officers pictured with protesters during the march before the shooting unfolded were not in heavy armor the public has grown used to seeing at these gatherings, but regular uniforms.
Still, regardless of the Dallas PD’s reputation, the decision to use a robotic ground drone armed with explosives was a startling first for American law enforcement. In the aftermath, it suddenly dawned on many people that it had set a dangerous precedent.

The use of robots in this way brings up a host of legal and ethical issues. As Elizabeth Joh, a University of California at Davis law professor explained to the Guardian a few days after the incident, “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 officers 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.”

The ACLU had put it even more succinctly long before, talking about the use of drones for surveillance and their potential weaponization, “When it becomes easier to do surveillance, surveillance is used more, and when it becomes easier to use force, force will be used more.”

A positive step was taken in 2012 when the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) released a series of non-binding guidelines for drone use by domestic law enforcement. Along with other common sense recommendations, like demanding that warrants be issued “where subjects have a reasonable expectation of privacy” is the quite sensible statement that “weapons should not be placed on domestic drones.”

This debate, though it’s just beginning to register for many of us, has been ongoing in official circles for some time. In 2015, for example, legislators in North Dakota passed a bill that “allows for non-lethal drone use on police drones (for example, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray)”. Alongside LRAD sonic cannons, it appears that crowd control methods used by law enforcement may be about to make a technological leap that could chill this right in many places. Even the argument that such tactics won’t be widely adopted by representative democracies doesn’t mean they won’t be used elsewhere, especially by more repressive regimes.

Its also important to note that, while we‘ve been speaking mainly of local law enforcement here, federal police have been using aerial surveillance drones (UAVs) for some time. As the FBI wrote to Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) in the summer of 2013, “Since late 2006, the FBI has conducted surveillance using UAVs in eight criminal cases and two national security cases.” (FBI to Rand Paul) The agency also informed the Senator that the agency doesn’t require warrants for these surveillance flights.

And this isn’t only an issue in the United States, across the border in Canada, metropolitan and federal police have already acquired and use drones, although a spokesperson for the Halton Regional Police in the country’s largest province Ontario, told  that his department doesn’t use its UAVs for surveillance, though they aren’t ruling it out in the future, “On the list of things we use them for, surveillance isn’t even on our list, just because it’s not practical. Down the road it might be possible. I think that’ll happen.”

The can of worms opened up in Dallas, and my point here is not to second guess a decision that was made under extreme duress, should open up a wide public debate about how the law will apply to this relatively new technology. Using robots to blow up suspects, while effective in the moral haze of war, should never be normalized as a solution to domestic crises.


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