Monday morning quarterbacking: Should Dallas police have used a robot to take out mass murderer?

Dallas police used a bomb-squad robot to kill a barricaded suspect in the mass murder of police officers, which apparently is the first intentional application of remote-control lethal force. Does this represent an escalation in the use of remote devices by domestic law enforcement? Or is it just a safer option for police to use under the existing limits on the use of lethal force?

Given the animus against law enforcement that precipitated this attack, there is some irony to this development:

Some see no reason for this to be at all controversial. Police have the technology to protect themselves, so why not use it — especially when dealing with a suspect who clearly wanted to take out as many cops as he could before getting killed?

It made “perfect sense” for Dallas police to use a robot to stop the suspect, Micah Xavier Johnson, said David Klinger, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

When police attempted to subdue the suspect — who in this case killed and injured several people, according to police — the goal was to resolve the situation with no further loss of innocent life, Klinger said.

“It’s ridiculous to expect that police would expose themselves to gunfire in order to defeat the suspect with gunfire,” Klinger said. “It’s awful. We don’t want to have to do this. But, it’s less awful than to have more police officers killed.”

The ACLU sees it as a dangerous development, however, and cautions that legislators may need to get ahead of this before its use becomes widespread:

But advocates warn that robots may be overused because they will allow deadly force to be applied more easily said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“As a legal matter, the choice of weapon in a decision to use lethal force does not change the constitutional calculus, which hinges on whether an individual poses an imminent threat to others, and whether the use of lethal force is reasonable under the circumstances,” Stanley said. “Remote uses of force raise policy issues that should be carefully considered and addressed by our society as technology advances and should remain confined to extraordinary situations.”

The issue may not be anywhere near as dire as that. In strictly practical terms, using a remote-controlled bomb to “neutralize” a threat won’t work in most cases because of the potential for collateral damage. Many of these standoffs involve hostages or valuable property. Widespread use of robots as lethal force might also make it more difficult for police to use these robots as they have been used in the past — as ways to engage suspects in standoffs with deliveries of phones, food, and so on. In almost all other situations, there would be better options, including other options for the application of lethal force.

That’s the real question anyway. Either lethal force is legitimate in a situation, or it’s not. If a situation calls for lethal force, does it matter (outside of considerations of collateral damage) which form it takes? In this case, lethal force was clearly appropriate after hours of attempting to resolve the standoff non-lethally, and the police chose one of their legitimate tools in applying that force.

Besides, this is a question of priorities. How many more faces did we want to add to this collection of dead heroes, in ABC’s video below, in order to take out their killer? No matter how we slice this up philosophically now, that was the choice facing Dallas police yesterday. It seems more than a bit churlish to lament the loss of five police officers and in the same breath suggest that more of them should have been killed to resolve the situation.

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John Sexton 1:00 PM on December 05, 2022