Op-Ed: The debate around killing by police robot
An FBI evidence response team works at the scene of the police shootings in Dallas, Friday, July 8, 2016. Five police officers are dead and several injured following a shooting during what began as a peaceful protest in the city the night before. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Chris Lewis, CP24.com
Published Tuesday, July 12, 2016 5:37PM EDT
Highly-respected former Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey said, “It was a unique situation that required some unique tactics in order to resolve it”, while speaking to CNN’s Michael Smerconish following the horrific murder of police officers in Dallas, Texas last week.
He was referring of course to the decision by police to send a police robot that was armed with an explosive device into the isolated location the murderer was holed-up in, hours following the fatal shooting of five officers and the wounding of nine other people. This entire tragedy was a first in many respects, including the utilization of unmanned technology to apply deadly force in a domestic policing situation.
Over the days that followed, many discussions have occurred in mainstream and social media circles, as well as over coffee counters all over North America, regarding the legitimacy of such lethal tactics. In fact one journalist pondered whether or not a dangerous precedent has been set. I like to think that a precedent has in fact been set.
Police departments have had robots for years. They were never meant to be killing machines, and I cannot recall one ever being used for that purpose, but I know it has been considered in the past.
These remote-controlled mechanical tools are primarily used for explosive disposal by police units. Contrary to fictional movies, cutting the right wires in the right sequence on a bomb is incredibly dangerous work. Highly-trained explosive disposal technicians would prefer to do as much work as possible through the robot’s eyes and attachments and/or have the robot safely detonate a suspicious package where feasible, rather than try to physically open and disarm it by human hand. Many robots are armed with “disrupters” of sorts, such as shotguns or water-cannons that can safely perform that role.
Another fairly common use has been to send robots into high-risk areas during armed standoffs, utilizing its mounted camera and video feed to safely examine a physical location; or to search for victims in environments too dangerous for emergency responders. As well, delivering a phone, radio or other object to a barricaded person can be very safely done through a robot versus having an officer crawl up and throw it to the gunman. In addition to a camera, most of these robots have speakers and microphones mounted on them, so police negotiators can actually use the machines to communicate with someone for that purpose.
Tactical officers have certainly considered using a mounted shotgun to neutralize armed suspects in the past. I have been a part of such discussions myself, but I am not aware of it actually occurring. I know that tear gas projectiles have been deployed by a police robot in some situations over the years.
When Dallas police had the murderer contained in an empty building last week following an intense shootout with him, police negotiators tried their best – as they always do, to get him to safely surrender. A peaceful resolution is always their goal. He reportedly taunted police; asked how many officers he had killed; said that he wanted to kill more; and indicated that he had placed explosives in unknown locations. In the minds of the negotiators and police leaders, no amount of negotiation was going to safely end his rampage.
So what were their options?
Clearly, police had the authority to use deadly force to end his killing spree. In fact, had he broken their containment and killed more people, they may have been civilly liable, as well as completely professionally and emotionally devastated. They could not let him get out of there. If police had line-of-sight access to him, he would have quickly died through sniper fire – much like he killed their innocent colleagues. But they did not.
Having tactical officers rush his isolated position to physically arrest him, would likely have resulted in his death, but would have been a suicide mission for police. He was a highly trained and well-armed killer that obviously was prepared to die and bragged about explosive devices. However the officers would still have done their best to safely take him into custody and further risked their lives in the process. But that wasn’t an option either.
So, to be quite blunt, they had to find a unique way to take his life before he took the lives of others.
A “dangerous precedent” has been set, and it is this:
If another maniac decides to shoot at many innocent people with the sole intention of taking human life, the killer has personally opted to be in a very “dangerous” situation.
And if negotiations and attempts to safely make an arrest fail, the killer is in even more danger. Then, if police can’t fire bullets into the killer to end this ongoing threat to life, he’d better get ready – because when the precedent kicks in, he is going to be blown to kingdom come. I think that’s a “precedent” that the majority of society can accept.
God’s speed to the men and women of the Dallas and the Dallas Rapid Transit Police departments and their families. May the injured victims fully recover; and may the brave fallen officers rest in peace.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.