On Friday, the Dallas police department deployed a "bomb robot" to end a stand-off with sniper suspect, Micah Johnson. Because Johnson, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, had killed multiple officers, police did not want to get within range of his gun, so they instead attached an explosive device to a robot’s arm and then detonated it at close quarters. It appears to be the first time police have used this kind of technology—a weaponized robot—domestically to kill a U.S. citizen.
We now have the details on the device used: it was a Remotec Andros F-5 model, which Dallas police equipped with a pound of C4 explosives and manually maneuvered via remote. It's unclear if the robot, which is usually used domestically to dispose of bombs and to explore dangerous environments like collapsed buildings, survived the incident. It's made by Remotec, a subsidiary of weapons manufacturer, Northrop Grumman. Overseas, it's been used in combat operations.
The Dallas police department released a statement confirming the model of robot and explosive used, and described the lead-up to the decision to employ this unprecedented tactic:
“When all attempts to negotiate with the suspect, Micah Johnson, failed under the exchange of gunfire, the Department utilized the mechanical tactical robot, as a last resort, to deliver an explosion device to save the lives of officers and citizens.
The robot used was the Remotec, Model F-5, claw and arm extension with an explosive device of C4 plus “Det” cord.
Approximate weight of total charge was one pound.”
Dallas PD Chief David Brown said further at a press conference after the operation that, "We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate," and that other actions "Would have exposed our officers to grave danger."
The chief did confer with an elected official before making the decision, discussing it with Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings. Via Dallas News:
"I was very supportive of it," the mayor said of the call. "I didn't want to hear that one more of our police officers was going to die. The chief felt it was the safest way. We'd talked to the guy. We gave him choices. We said, 'You can come out and not be hurt, or you can stay there and be hurt.'"
This use of lethal force has raised questions about the legalities and ethical questions of due process for the suspect as well as more discomfort over the increased militarization of local police departments. Policy experts, though, stress that the robot was at no point autonomous and remained under human control at all times, and say that, from a legal standpoint, the operation was within the law.
And though this is the first time a civilian has been killed by a law enforcement controlled remote robot, it's not the first time one has been used by police in a tense stand-off; in Albuquerque in 2014 police armed a remote robot with 'chemical munitions' against an armed suspect who then surrendered, Daily Beast's Christopher Moraff reported.
As to how Dallas PD obtained the F-5, Australian journalist Asher Wolf uncovered documents that show the Dallas PD is in possession of three Remotec robots, which the department had announced in May via blog: “The Dallas Police Department Explosive Ordinance Unit recently upgraded it’s equipment with the purchase of a new vehicle, new robots, new bomb suits, and new tools.”
The department has not said whether it purchased the equipment directly from the manufacturer or whether this was military equipment that made its way into local law enforcement hands. The latter happens through the 1033 Program which allows the Defense Department to sell supplies it no longer uses to local police departments across the country. The Dallas PD did not respond to phone or email queries about the source of the robots.
We also queried the Justice Department on the federal government’s position on the state’s use of a remote-controlled robot to employ lethal force in a domestic setting, but were told to refer these questions to the Dallas PD.
The department then directed requests to their statement.
With no legal objections, this sets a new precedent where robots, or drones, could be used to execute a suspect deemed too dangerous to be read his or her Miranda rights.
Elmo is a writer with Real Future.