Early Friday morning, a police standoff with a suspect in the killing of five police officers in Dallas came to an abrupt end on Friday morning in an unusual way.
“Negotiations broke down. We had an exchange of gunfire with the suspect,” Dallas police chief David Brown explained in a press conference. “We 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.”
You read that correctly: “bomb robot.”
Typically, in violent standoffs involving gunfire, police wait out the suspects, or try to deploy snipers of their own to remove the threat. The general rule is that if police are not directly under threat of taking fire, they should try to bring home the suspect alive. Brown, though, said the robot was the only choice the force had.
“Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased,” he said.
The use of a robot to kill someone has taken police observers aback. Using robots to place small detonating devices next to larger bombs so that they detonate remotely has long been a tactic used by police bomb squads. And last year, a robot was used to talk a man out of suicide, after using it to deliver him a phone and pizza.
But placing a bomb on a police robot with the intention to kill a suspect—if that is, in fact, what happened—would represent a major shift in policing tactics. In fact, it may be the first “use of robot in this way in policing” in the United States, defense technology expert Peter Singer tweeted.
The use of bombs in policing volatile situations has a painful history in the U.S. Most infamously, in 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department detonated a powerful bomb after a lengthy standoff with black radical group MOVE. The mayor approved the bombing, and in the end 65 homes were destroyed and eleven people were killed, including five children.
The incident was heavily scrutinized, but after multiple grand jury investigations no one in city government faced criminal charges.
While that the use of a “robot bomb” to kill suspects appears to be unprecedented in America’s domestic history, the tactic has frequently been used in overseas war zones. In the war in Iraq, a device called a MARCBOT (Multi-Function Agile Remote-Controlled Robot) has been deployed to effectively carry explosives to kill insurgents.
“One unit of soldiers put Claymore antipersonnel mines on their MARCBOTs,” reads a Brookings Institute report from 2009 titled “Military Robots and the Laws of War.” “Whenever they thought insurgents were hiding in an alley, they would send a MARCBOT down first, not just to scout out the ambush, but to take them out with the Claymore.”
It now appears that a tactic of war deployed on foreign soil is being used on the streets of American cities. There are still a lot of moving pieces and things to sort together in the aftermath of the police shootings in Dallas. But one thing is clear: the rules of police engagement might have just changed forever.