As the killings and videos in the past few days, of black men at traffic stops, and five police officers in Dallas on Friday, remind us, we are a long way from the post-racial world many thought we'd entered after Obama's election (or even the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Most of us born after the Civil Rights Act (Gen X, Millennials, Homeland gen) don't remember segregated society, but the vestiges of it are still there, and they transcend age, income, gender and every other demographic. Du Bois's "the problem of the 20th century will be the problem of race," is just as easily true in the 21st century so far.
But while most of these issues are beyond this blog's scope, the one troubling item worth examining here was how the standoff with the suspect in Dallas (Micah Johnson) ended via a "bomb robot" that essentially blew the suspect to smithereens and completely usurped the judicial system in the process.
The Dallas police ended a standoff with the gunman suspected of killing five officers with a tactic that by all accounts appears to be unprecedented: It blew him up using a robot.In doing so, it sought to protect police who had negotiated with the man for several hours and had exchanged gunfire with him. But the decision ignited a debate about the increasing militarization of police and the remote-controlled use of force, and raised the specter of a new era of policing.The Dallas police chief, David O. Brown, said officers had used one of the department’s “bomb robots,” attaching an explosive device to its arm that was detonated early Friday when the robot was near the gunman. “Other options would have exposed the officers to grave danger,” he said.But the decision to deliver a bomb by robot stunned some current and former law enforcement officials, who said they believed the new tactic blurred the line between policing and warfare.
They said that it might have been an excessive use of force and that it set a precedent, adding that they were concerned that other departments across the country could begin using the same tactic.“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,” said Rick Nelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former counterterrorism official on the National Security Council. “It’s what we have done with drones in warfare.”“In warfare, your object is to kill,” he added. “Law enforcement has a different mission.”
Other law enforcement officials supported the decision, suggesting they could take a similar approach if the situation called for it. At a news conference on Friday, New York’s police commissioner, William J. Bratton, said that while he was waiting to find out precisely what the Dallas police did, “we have that capability.”“This is an individual that killed five police officers,” he added. “So God bless ’em.”
One expert in legal issues and robotics said he thought the use of the robot was justified, and saw little difference between its use and having a sniper shoot from a distance.“No court would find a legal problem here,” said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington law school. “When someone is an ongoing lethal danger, there isn’t an obligation on the part of officers to put themselves in harm’s way.”
But bomb disposal robots have been used to deliver objects to suspects, hostages and others, or to distract or communicate with suspects.Last year, a man with a knife who threatened to jump off a bridge in San Jose, Calif., was taken into custody after the police had a robot bring him a cellphone and a pizza as part of efforts to talk him down.In November 2014, the Albuquerque police used a robot to “deploy chemical munitions,” in the words of a department report, in a motel room where a man had barricaded himself with a gun. He surrendered.
One wonders: is the militarizing of the citizenry a cause of the militarizing of the police? Or a consequence?