How Far Do We Let Law Enforcement Go in Stopping Criminals?

DallasShooting

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.

RemotecF5

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.

WrathofKhan

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.

Which Side Are You On? “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek”

WarsVersusTrek

There are many great conundrums in life. “Less Filling” versus “Tastes Great”; Ginger versus Mary Ann; and, since we just completed Thanksgiving, white meat versus dark meat. But there is potentially no greater debate than that of two of the greatest followings of the late 20th/early 21st century:  are you Star Wars or Star Trek?

Ever since the time of Jules Verne – hell, if we are serious, we’ve wondered since we drew images on the caves 35,000 years ago – man has tried to figure out what was beyond our earthly bounds. Leonardo da Vinci is alleged to have created blueprints for rockets and their flight; H. G. Wells used his imagination towards the subject to pen some of the great science fiction of the early 20th century and Albert Einstein actually did the math that would lead to our voyages to the stars. It wasn’t until other German scientists, led by Werner von Braun, actually harnessed the power of rocketry that those dreams became reality.

Since that time, mankind has achieved tremendous feats in the weightlessness beyond our Earth. There were the Apollo landings by NASA in the 1960s/70s, but the then-U. S. S. R. achieved longevity records for time in space and actually built the first long-term space station, Mir, in the 1980s (Skylab, for all of its exploits in the 1970s, only had three missions total with the longest lasting 84 days). Today, the International Space Station stands as perhaps the closest thing to mankind, regardless of nationality, joining together in our best efforts in space and its exploration.

The reach beyond the moon, however, has been limited to unmanned probes and satellites chocked full of cameras and data recorders that can capture the base information of the bodies it passes. These devices, however, lack the human capability of viewing the universe surrounding us and its wonder, of transmitting this astonishment back to a ravenous audience who wants to know what is out in the heavens beyond. Thus, we have to depend on the visionaries who have crafted a universe that soothes our curiosity somewhat but lights the fire of that same curiosity on another hand.

StarTrek

The visionary Gene Roddenberry was the first to take a crack at this difficult task. Star Trek, created by Roddenberry in 1966, showed a Planet Earth that didn’t recognize national boundaries anymore but organized under the “United Federation of Planets.” The flagship of the Federation was the starship Enterprise, captained by James Kirk (and later Jean-Luc Picard) and replete with all nationalities from Planet Earth on board.  There was even an alien, Mr. Spock, who hailed from the planet Vulcan. Their “five year mission” was to explore the galaxies and discover new situations, something that has been a human trait since crawling out of the primordial ooze.

The show wasn’t initially popular as people had a difficult time wrapping their minds around Roddenberry’s concept. Roddenberry was trying to detail the difficulties of society at that time in an arena where such discussion could be possible. While it may seem that Kirk’s machismo and swashbuckling style was the rule, examinations of race relations, destruction of the environment and the devastating effects of war were the overarching storylines that appeared. These themes (as well as many others) were the true staple of Roddenberry’s work on the program and over the wealth of Star Trek-related spinoffs over the past 50 years.

StarWars

In 1977, another entry came into the view of what the galaxy looked like. Envisioned by George Lucas and nearly as dear to him as Star Trek had been to Roddenberry, the movie Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977. Initially not thought to be much by the studios (Star Wars was a toss-in with American Graffiti by Universal Studios to sign Lucas to a contract), the film would turn out to be one of the biggest movies of 1977, earning over $775 million ($1.3 billion today) worldwide in box office receipts (all totaled, the Star Wars franchise has earned over $4.4 billion in its existence). The film would go on to have five sequels/prequels, with the sixth – Star Wars:  The Force Awakens – set for release on December 18.

Since Star Wars joined into the “vision of space race” with Star Trek, however, there has been a battle between the franchises for the minds of fans. Many involved in this battle believe that a person may accept one of the franchises but cannot accept the other, forcing many to choose sides in this epic battle. My question would be…why? The two shows come at the subject of the universe from two completely different angles and, through combination, offer an excellent approach.

When he first conceived Star Trek, Roddenberry envisioned the “perfect” state of humanity – perhaps most importantly peace among the Planet Earth’s nations – that continued to thirst for adventure, knowledge and exploration of the interplanetary universe that surrounded their ship. They would achieve those goals in a state-of-the-art vessel that included the scientific devices that might be found in any assortment of satellites along with the eyes that could relate the wonder of what was being seen.

Star Trek came at the questions regarding the universe from a purely scientific standpoint. There was the philosophical contemplation about man’s (or any species’) place in the galaxies, the dilemma over how to handle a race or species that wasn’t as scientifically advanced and many other conundrums that we face even today. The devices used during the run of the Star Trek franchise have also become scientific items that are commonly used such as cellphones, medical scanners and the like. The Star Trek universe is continuing to expand despite turning 50 next year… a new television/web series is set to premiere on CBS in 2017.

Instead of an array of devices (although some of them were quite impressive…who doesn’t want a lightsaber?), Star Wars chose to tell the story of space as an opera, a Shakespearean play, rather than as a scientific endeavor. The clash of good versus evil, father versus son and even the collision of worlds and their destruction formed the basis for what essentially was a soap opera for geeks (and we can say that proudly, by the way). Each new incarnation of the film extended the story and it isn’t over yet; over the next few years, there are two more Star Wars-specific films in the works and several movie projects on characters – providing “background” to the stories being told – that make up the Star Wars universe.

Being able to accept both Star Trek and Star Wars as a future existence would be perhaps the way it was meant to be. While we have the technological amazement and advancements that would make such a journey a true adventure, there is also the potential for the dramatic and even perhaps violent turns that such journeys can take. In a perfect world, an interdependency between the two franchises and their theories would also prove to be the best approach to the potential problems of intergalactic travel, with each side providing the answer to the questions that are presented.

Thus, as both franchises continue on their individual courses, perhaps they are more alike than they realize. Perhaps they look to achieve the best that the human being – and aliens – can achieve in the myriad of parts that make us whole. Perhaps, just perhaps, Star Wars and Star Trek are the epitome of what we can be rather than the “one side or another” proposition that is offered.