Will HPD Start Using Its Bomb Squad Robots for Lethal Force, Too?

The Cleveland Police Department's bomb squad robot.
The Cleveland Police Department's bomb squad robot.

The fact that the Dallas Police Department used a robot to kill the lone sniper in the deadly police ambush last week was the kind of detail that at first paled in comparison to those of the tragedy itself — but that then, days after the attack, began to freak some people out. And anybody who has seen the movie I, Robot with Will Smith will have no trouble understanding why.

After the suspect killed five police officers and injured seven more, the authorities say, he engaged in a long standoff with police as negotiations failed. He reportedly told police he was angry about the recent officer-involved shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana and wanted to kill white cops. Dallas police ultimately killed him with the robot on the second floor of El Centro College — not the parking lot of Dallas police headquarters, as police repeatedly misstated — by remotely detonating a bomb the bot delivered.

Within days, law enforcement experts were calling the move unprecedented. But the robots themselves are rather old news.

Police departments have been regularly using robots on bomb squads for the past 20 years or so, according to Thomas Aveni, executive director of the Police Policy Studies Council, a national consulting group that studies police tactics and use of force. The way robots are used has steadily evolved as technology has become more advanced: first for intelligence purposes in the early 1990s, and eventually also for bomb detonation. And now, for what appears to be the first time, also for taking out a suspect.

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The Houston Police Department does in fact have these robots on its bomb squad. Spokeswoman Jodi Silva said they are used for surveillance and safety purposes — the bots can roll up to a dicey scene and sniff out any dangers first so officers don't have to put their own lives at risk. In other cases, they're employed to detonate or neutralize bombs contained in suspicious packages, Silva said. But so far, not for killing people.

Asked whether HPD would consider using the robots to deliver lethal force, Silva said she could not comment on that, or comment further on how the devices currently work. Aveni said he's familiar with many bomb-bots that are equipped with shotguns and detonate bombs by firing at them. This came as a shock to Silva, but she couldn't confirm or deny this is how HPD robots function.

Dallas Police Chief David Brown defended his department's use of the robot, saying that any other options would have exposed more officers to grave danger. He reportedly said at a news conference Monday, “This wasn't an ethical dilemma for me."

Others across the country, like Houston lawyer Philip Hilder, fear that the advent of using robots as police-hired hit men could lead to irresponsible use of the technology. Hilder, in a statement, questioned whether the technology was appropriate even in the Dallas situation, in which the suspect was surrounded, talking to authorities and holding no hostages. “Clear rules of engagement to utilize this new policing technology must be established to prevent a slippery slope of killing citizens without the benefit of due process,” Hilder said.

Aveni said he doesn't see that as a possibility, because officers are bound by what he called “restrictive parameters” that dictate when it is appropriate for an officer to use deadly force. Which is generally when they are “fearing for their lives,” as is often the justification released, verbatim, by authorities following officer-involved shootings. According to HPD's use-of-force general orders, it's okay to kill when "officers
reasonably believe it is necessary to protect themselves or others from the imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death." Aveni said that as long as the shooting is considered justified by police and grand juries (which is pretty much always, at least here in Houston, no matter the circumstances), then the way in which officers take out the person shouldn't change that justification.

“This certainly is a whole new paradigm,” Aveni said. “But the bottom line is, if you can justify taking a life, it probably doesn't matter how you do it as long as your measures aren't grossly disproportionate — in other words, if we were to use a 500-pound bomb to blow this guy up in Dallas.”

Aveni said even though this technology has been around for decades, the reason he believes it has only just now been used for lethal force is that there has never been a situation that called for it. Which is why he can't imagine that using robots to kill suspects would suddenly become common.

But as tensions remain high between police and communities across the country, perhaps the only thing anyone can do is hope that Aveni's prediction is correct.

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