Last week police in Dallas used an explosive attached to a robot to kill a man suspected of killing five Dallas-area police officers and wounding eleven other people, including two non-officers. The detonation-by robot is widely believed to be the first killing of its kind in the history of American policing, and has prompted much discussion and debate. In the days since the Dallas shooting, questions have been raised concerning when police should be permitted to kill citizens and if lethal use-of-force policy should change depending on the tool police officers use the kill citizens. While it is tempting to view new technologies as devices worthy of a special set of rules, policymakers should consider regulations that make police-citizen interactions safer and less frequent rather than craft new use-of-force rules for robots.
For the purposes of this post, assume that what Dallas Police Chief David Brown said about the killing of the suspect is true. According to Brown, following hours of failed negotiation “[Dallas police] saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was.” He also said, “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”
Given America’s federalist system, it is appropriate that there is no universal use-of-force policy guiding this country’s roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Yet police officers are generally permitted to use force in order to make a suspect comply with a lawful order or arrest. Such force is deemed excessive when it goes beyond what is necessary, although there isn’t a nationwide consensus on what is deemed excessive. For instance, in some jurisdictions chokeholds are permitted while in others they’re banned.
Despite the diversity of American police departments, most use-of-force policies allow for a police officer to use deadly force if he reasonably believes that a suspect poses a threat of serious injury or death to the officer himself or others. The Dallas shooting suspect clearly fits into this category.
While the use of robots to kill suspects may prompt a sense of unease among some–evoking scenes from dystopian science fiction movies–there are few reasons to think that a robot should be treated differently from a handgun or sniper rifle under deadly use-of-force policy.