After snipers opened fire at a rally in Dallas on July 7 and killed five officers, police spent hours in a standoff with one suspect who was cornered in a parking garage. Finally, just before 3 a.m., they sent in a robot that had been jury-rigged to set off a bomb, killing the suspect, Micah Xavier Johnson.
Afterward, there was a collective response: “Wait… Police departments have robots that can kill people?”
The answer is, yes, some do, and that includes several departments here in South Florida.
Granted, the robots aren’t designed for that purpose. They’re intended to detect and disable bombs and have been used that way for years. Dallas marked the first time police have used one to kill a suspect.
The fact that these devices can become deadly weapons brings up an ethical dilemma: When, exactly, should law enforcement officers send in a robot rather than try to negotiate a surrender?
“Is this excessive force? It needs to be explored more,” Barry Butin, the legal panel cochair of the Broward chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says. “And it has to be the last resort.”
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But, he adds, killing people with bomb-wielding robots is a legal gray area. “Obviously, there’s nothing in the Constitution about it. The founders didn’t predict robot-operated bombs that can kill suspects.”
Here’s a list of who has purchased bomb robots:
- Coral Springs: The Coral Springs Police Department is currently asking the City Commission for $65,909.32 to update and repair their TALON robot, which was purchased in 2009 for $178,000. “It’s a great piece of equipment that can be utilized to open doors, make the initial contact with barricaded subjects, and assist in the successful conclusion of clearing a location when deemed practical,” Detective Ernesto Bruno says.
- Fort Lauderdale: According to a database created by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, which uses information provided to the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department acquired a bomb disposal robot for $10,000 in April 2014. The city commission also approved the purchase of a Negotiator robot, which can climb stairs and is small enough to fit in the trunk of a car, for $32,854 in April 2012. FLPD, however, won’t confirm or deny whether it owns either of these robots. “Any information regarding any robot the department does or does not have is considered tactical information,” Detective Keven Depree wrote in an email.
Broward Sheriff’s Office: The BSO is more forthcoming — they even have a picture of their bomb robot on their website. According to Public Information Officer Gina Carter, it was purchased in July 2015 for just under $300,000. “It is used in a range of situations from recon/surveillance to disrupting a potentially explosive device,” she explains. “The robot can also be used to gain access to a home or room in a scenario where our officers’ lives would be in danger.”
Could one of these robots be used, Dallas-style, to kill a suspect during a shootout? In theory, yes: There’s nothing in Florida’s law governing the use of deadly force that says otherwise. Whether police departments will come up with their own guidelines remains to be seen.