When can the police kill?

Shots in Dallas - Can a police robot kill people?

Remote-controlled technology boxes that drive into the danger zone on wheels or chains and examine suspicious parcels or render bombs harmless: this is what everyone knows. But a radio-controlled device that rolls in explosives to incapacitate a criminal is new.

The Dallas gunman, who is said to have shot and killed five police officers from ambush, was ultimately killed by a police robot with an explosive device. It is probably the first time that this technique has been used in this way. "I can't remember police officers using such a device as a delivery mechanism for lethal force," says University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, a former police officer with the Atlantic. "This is a new horizon for police technology. It raises some questions."

What is the new robo technology allowed to do?

Remote-controlled violence is repeatedly questioned morally and legally in today's wars and conflicts, but it is commonplace in the form of large or small drones. The police in the USA use remote-controlled devices for reconnaissance by camera, the application of tear gas and even to rescue the wounded, as the Policemag reports. Is the police breaking new ground with the robo-bomb?

Not necessarily, says Professor Stoughton. If police officers were threatened directly, the use of force on the part of the monopoly of violence would be justified in a first step, the question of the type of violence would only be secondary. "If someone shoots the police, they can eliminate them by shooting them down, stabbing them with a knife or rolling them over with a vehicle. I think the method is legally irrelevant."

The Verge reports that the police used a remote-controlled robot to deter a man from suicide by bringing him pizza and a phone. In 2014, New Mexico police used a small robot to neutralize a persistent suspect in a motel. The device drove into the room, a cartridge of chemical ammunition was ignited, done. But is it that easy?

When Dallas' police chief David Brown calmly stated that the drama could not have ended with the robot that delivered explosives, he did not say what exactly the police had used. Flash grenades and door openers are also known from films. But, says lawyer Stoughton: "I can't remember the police having anything on hand that they would use as weapons explosives."

The Verge suspected it was explosives used to detonate larger bombs. That evening, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings confirmed just that: it was C4 explosives. The man was given a choice and he made up his mind.

The use of technology raises questions

The use of new police technology has always raised questions, says lawyer Stoughton: From firearms themselves to modern electric shock pistols (Taser), the question of appropriate use has always arisen. "I think we'll have similar conversations about robots that bring death."

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There is a complicated and intense debate in the military about the possibilities of robo-technology, far beyond drones. But the experts point to a key difference: the purpose of the military deployed is to dominate the enemy. The police, on the other hand, are there to protect the population, says Stoughton. And as difficult as it is to explain, it includes people who do evil. "What it does not include is the use of deadly force when it is possible to avoid it."

The Dallas police made the decision that their use was inevitable. The decision was made by people. The device was the supplier.