Three suspects have been apprehended after Thursday night’s Dallas shooting, which resulted in the death of five police officers and injured six more, plus one civilian. Following a prolonged standoff and negotiation with police, one suspect was killed by an explosion detonated by a bomb robot.
Robots have been proliferating in local policing over the last few years. The technology was largely developed for military and large-scale disaster response scenarios, but has obvious applications in local policing as well. It is used to diffuse or detonate bombs, scout locations with cameras, work in rubble, and do other jobs that are dangerous for officers. The Dallas shooting appears to be the first time a police robot has been used to kill.
Dallas police chief David Brown explained in a press conference Friday morning:
We cornered one suspect and we tried to negotiate for several hours. Negotiations broke down, we had an exchange of gunfire with the suspect, 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. Other options would have exposed our officers to great danger. The suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb.
The suspect who was killed claimed that he had planted bombs in the area, but the New York Times reports that officials said they swept the area and didn’t find any. The explosive the robot was carrying that killed the suspect was a police explosive.
A June report from the Dallas Morning News (surfaced by the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance) includes descriptions of at least one or possibly two Dallas Police Department robots. The account describes a bomb robot picking up a duffel bag that then exploded, severely damaging a nearby SUV. Later, the piece describes another bomb robot—or perhaps the same one if it survived the other explosion—surveying a scene with its onboard camera, revealing images of two pipe bombs in a van, and later detonating the explosives safely. The Dallas News wrote, “An officer remotely controlled the robot’s movements as they watched the camera images on a screen.” These types of police robots are not autonomous, meaning they do not make decisions using artificial intelligence on their own.
It’s not shocking that Dallas police are trained to use robots in the field, but the situation following Thursday’s shooting is unusual. As the Verge points out, police have been using robots in increasingly innovative ways, like to deliver food and a cellphone to a man on the brink of taking his own life in San Jose. But the scenario following the Dallas shooting is much more charged. Crucially the robot did not make any decisions itself and would not be capable of doing so.