The tragedy that occurred last week with the Dallas Police Department’s finest officers – seeing the death of five of their own and the injury to seven, not counting the civilians in the mix – being gunned down by a deranged former Army soldier has left the country stunned. This aftermath came after two shootings by police against black citizens in Louisiana and Minnesota, presumably without provocation or cause (investigation will reveal more…perhaps). As we try to figure out the problems with these prickly issues, there was another issue that raised its head during those frantic hours after gunshots rang through downtown Dallas.
The Dallas police did their job admirably, finally cornering the suspect in a parking garage in that downtown area. Concerned with the possibility that the shooter (and we won’t dignify him by using his name) could shoot and kill more cops and the threats from that shooter that he was ready to use bombs to take out as many people as possible, the Chief of Police for the Dallas PD, David Brown, made the difficult decision to use a remote controlled robot to deliver an explosive device of its own. The device, a Remotec Model F-5, carried a block of C4 weighing less than a pound to the shooter and killed him in the explosion.
The Dallas PD issued a statement afterwards, stating that usage of the robot was “a last resort…to deliver an explosion device (sic) to save the lives of officers and citizens.” Chief Brown himself stated that “This wasn’t an ethical decision for me…I’d do it again,” commenting that the standoff with the shooter, the number of officers and civilians already injured and the potential for more casualties required the action. “I would use any tool necessary to save our officer’s lives. I’m not ashamed to say it,” Brown stated.
While the Chief of the Dallas PD made his decision and stands by it, the usage of remote controlled devices by law enforcement is something that has to be questioned. In examining the issue, however, we have to look at how dependent on mechanical, electronic and robotic devices we’ve become to do our “dirty work” for us.
There are the benign uses for robotics – the auto industry has been using them for car manufacturing for decades – and other arenas have also benefitted from their introduction. The medical field, agriculture, the airline industry – all have been able to improve their respective industries for the good of mankind. There are two areas, however – military and law enforcement – where the usage of robotics and the ethics behind such actions can be considered questionable.
The drone program that was started by the Bush Administration in the Middle East, and further expanded by the Obama Administration not only in that area of the world but also into Africa, has always been fraught with ethical questions. The ability of an unmanned object flying into an area and delivering death while its pilot sits comfortably hundreds (or even thousands) of miles away in a control room is something that is unfathomable to many in the world. Thus, trying to decide whether or not it is an ethical action or not is tough in the military world.
If the ethical decision is tough in the military world, then it is even more difficult in the civilian and law enforcement communities. People like to believe that they are safe and have entrusted the police to ensuring that safety. Over the years, however, we’ve seen that militaristic attitude creep over into the law enforcement community. Normally outgunned, the police departments of many cities and towns have been outfitted with the latest in riot gear, armored vehicles and tactical weapons to be able to “combat terrorism” (a 1997 law called the “1033 Program” ramped up in 2011, providing some of the tools we see used today). Military robots are also a part of that program and quite possibly provided the robot used to end the Dallas standoff Friday morning came from that 1033 Program.
But is it ethical to use a military device to kill a civilian? What are the processes that should be considered? Should a judge be involved in the decision? Or is it on one person or a small group of people to make that “judge, jury and executioner” decision rather than the legal process?
In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, this ethical dilemma is considered and an answer provided. (SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen a film that was released more than 35 years ago!) With the damaged starship Enterprise needing to get away from the detonation of the Genesis Project or be destroyed itself, Mr. Spock enters the engine room to restore the warp drive to the ship. Spock is successful in fixing the warp drive and the Enterprise escapes, but Spock is mortally wounded by radiation poisoning. With his dying breath, Spock states to Admiral James Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” as he offers his final Vulcan salute and passes away.
In the Dallas situation, Chief Brown was faced with this dilemma. Did he allow a situation to carry on for perhaps several more hours, with the potential for more people to be killed or injured by a maniac who gave every impression he was ready to die in the battle, or did he end the situation with a device that, while depriving the shooter of his due rights to the legal process should he be killed, could save innocent lives? The Chief did what he had to do and, in my opinion, did the right thing in this instance.
The problem is how do we move forward with similar actions. Would people have been as happy about the usage of a military robot or drone if it has been used on the Bundy occupation in Oregon earlier this year? What if it had killed several of the protesters on the grounds of that wildlife reserve? There are rules that need to be set for the usage of such robotics by law enforcement, just as there are rules for engagement for pretty much everything else that they do in the execution of their jobs.
First, it should be a “last resort” situation that a robot or drone is considered for usage by law enforcement. This may take several hours or even days to determine, but every other option should be exhausted before going to this length. Second, a judge should sign off on the decision by the appropriate personnel (the Chief of Police is a good one to make that call), giving it the blessing of the judicial system. Finally (and if possible), there should be some sort of warning given to the perpetrator that such actions are being readied and there is a final chance to surrender. After taking these steps, I don’t have a problem with law enforcement using a military drone or robot on a suspect.
What we can’t have is law enforcement going to these lengths on a regular basis to solve standoffs. Part of the reason we are having the debates about police actions that are heavily militarized and civilian reactions that view it as “oppressive” are due to that very militarization that are mentioned. The actions of Dallas’ Chief Brown, while ethically a challenge, were spot on in this case. In another one, they may very well be an overreach, unless the protections sought above are utilized. It is something to consider before the next situation arises and we’ve not figured out a protocol.