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Dallas 'Bomb Robot' Raises Ethical, Legal Questions

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 11, 2016 11:59 AM

Micah Johnson, a disgraced Army vet, is thought to have shot and killed five police officers and injured seven others in Dallas last Thursday. Johnson was killed in turn, hours after being cornered by police in a nearby parking garage. But Johnson didn't fall to police gunfire. He was blown up.

In what appears to be a first, the Dallas police used a Multi-function Agile Remote-Controlled Robot, or MARCbot, to end Johnson's life. The MARCbot, also known as a "bomb robot," was a simple military robot with an explosive attached to its arm, sent to dispatch the suspected Dallas shooter without endangering police officers' lives. But the use of the bomb robot has raised significant issues about the blending of military and police technologies and the delivery of deadly force when dealing with dangerous suspects.

From Iraq to Dallas

The MARCbot is a simple robotic platform first developed to help the U.S. Armed forces safely identify improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine a remote-controlled toy car with a camera-mounted arm coming out of the top and you'll have a fair picture of how the MARCbot looks and operates.

Dallas, however, marked a reversal of the MARCbot's original uses. No longer detecting bombs, it was now delivering them. No longer on the battle fields of Iraq, it was being dispatched by a civilian police force.

It's the first time police had used the MARCbot offensively to kill a suspect, according to technological warfare and robotics expert Peter W. Singer.

A Brave New World?

The use of the bomb robot has caused some to question the militarization of police and the appropriateness of the Dallas police's method of respond to Johnson. The question is not the police department's reliance on lethal force -- virtually all commentators agree the lethal force was justified -- but the method of delivering it.

Current and former law enforcement officials worried that the bomb robot may have been an excessive use of force, according to the New York Times. Others cautioned that such remote-controlled killings could reduce police reluctance to use lethal force. "The further we remove the officer from the use of force and the consequences that come with it, the easier it becomes to use that tactic," Rick Nelson, a former National Security Council counterterrorism official, told the Times.

The use of the bomb robot probably did not cross any legal lines, however, according to Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina who specializes in police and the law. "The circumstances that justify lethal force justify lethal force in essentially every form," he told the Atlantic.

Of course, police robots aren't always used for lethal ends. Last year, police in San Jose, California talked a suicidal man down from a bridge after using a robot to bring him a cellphone and pizza, according to the Times.

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