Robot-Delivered Death in Dallas

The Dallas police decision to use a robot-delivered bomb to kill the cornered shooter blamed for murdering five police officers raises troubling legal, technological and public-safety questions, writes Marjorie Cohn.

By Marjorie Cohn

As in many cities around the country, Black Lives Matter held a demonstration in Dallas to protest the police shootings of two more black men, Alton Sterling of Louisiana and Philando Castile of Minnesota. During the demonstration, Micah Xavier Johnson, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, mounted his own personal, deadly protest by shooting police officers guarding the nonviolent rally. Five officers were killed and seven wounded.

After negotiating for some time with Johnson, who was holed up in a community college parking garage, police sent in a robot armed with explosives and killed him. Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the subject was,” adding, “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”

Micah Johnson, the Afghan War veteran accused of murdering five Dallas police officers on July 8, 2016. After being cornered, he was killed by a bomb delivered by a police remote-controlled robot.

Micah Johnson, the Afghan War veteran accused of murdering five Dallas police officers on July 8, 2016. After being cornered, he was killed by a bomb delivered by a police remote-controlled robot.

The legal question is whether the officers reasonably believed Johnson posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to them at the time they deployed the robot to kill him. Johnson was apparently isolated in the garage, posing no immediate threat. If the officers could attach explosives to the robot, they could have affixed a tear gas canister to the robot instead, to force Johnson out of the garage. Indeed, police in Albuquerque used a robot in 2014 to “deploy chemical munitions,” which compelled the surrender of an armed suspect barricaded in a motel room.

But the Dallas police chose to execute Johnson with their killer robot. This was an unlawful use of force and a violation of due process.

The right to due process is a bedrock guarantee, not just in the U.S. Constitution, but also in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty we have ratified, making it part of our domestic law. Due process means arrest and fair trial. It is what separates democracies from dictatorships, in which the executive acts as judge, jury and executioner.

There were also practical public-safety concerns that should have been considered. During the standoff, Johnson reportedly told police there were “bombs all over” downtown Dallas. The police didn’t know if that was true. In order to protect the public, they could have interrogated him about the location of the bombs after getting him out of the garage with tear gas.

Apprehension and interrogation are recommended in a 2013 study conducted by the Pentagon’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force. The study was cited in “The Drone Papers,” leaked to The Intercept by an anonymous whistleblower who was a member of the intelligence community. It concluded, “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material” and recommended capture and interrogation rather than killing in aerial drone strikes.

The Obama administration currently uses unmanned armed drones to kill people in seven countries, effectively denying them due process.

There is a slippery slope from police use of armed robots to domestic use of armed drones. The Dallas police department’s robot was apparently manufactured by Northrup Grumman, the same company that makes the Global Hawk drones, used for surveillance in Obama’s drone program.

More than half the U.S.-Mexico border is patrolled with surveillance drones. Customs and Border Protection is considering arming them with “non-lethal” weapons. That could include rubber bullets, which can put out an eye.

The killing of Johnson is evidently the first time domestic law enforcement has utilized an armed robot to kill a suspect. It will not be the last. Police departments are becoming increasingly militarized, using assault weapons, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and ear-splitting sirens known as LRADs. Much of this equipment is purchased from the Pentagon at a significant discount.

But the answer to our national epidemic of racist police killings is not to further militarize law enforcement. We must completely rethink and restructure policing. That means requiring advanced degrees for police officers, intensive screening for racism, and rigorous training in how to handle cross-racial situations. It means moving toward community-based policing and citizens police-review boards with independent authority. And it means coming to grips with the pernicious racism that permeates our society.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, a former criminal defense attorney, and past president of the National Lawyers Guild. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Follow her on Twitter. This article originally appeared in The Hill newspaper.

 

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13 comments for “Robot-Delivered Death in Dallas

  1. Annie
    July 25, 2016 at 11:40 am

    What nonsense. She talks about his not getting due process while 95-96% of those convicted of a felony, or federal crime plea bargain their cases in this country and are encouraged to do so by the legal system. Mostly this is done through verbal coercion using the threat they’ll probably get a lighter sentence if they do. As a result of this legal “habit” the Innocent Project estimates that some 50-60 thousand people are innocent of the crimes of which they have been convicted.
    Just a thought, if she had a son who had to go in there and arrest this guy using ordinary means, a man who just slaughtered 5 policemen and was no doubt on a drug crazed high, would she let him do it, or would she prefer the robot “bomb?”

    • Johnny Dillard
      July 25, 2016 at 1:44 pm

      Regardless of Due Process issues, use of a robotic delivered bomb by civil police officers has now set a precedent (an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.). This makes me fear for the future.

      • Annie
        July 25, 2016 at 2:33 pm

        If you swore to me you would be willing to send your son, or yourself in there to arrest this man, to give him that so called fair trial, that no longer exists for the vast majority of people, I’ll consider your position.
        She loses total credibility when she states,
        “The right to due process is a bedrock guarantee, not just in the U.S. Constitution, but also in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty we have ratified, making it part of our domestic law. Due process means arrest and fair trial. It is what separates democracies from dictatorships, in which the executive acts as judge, jury and executioner.”

        She states what she must know to be a total lie.

        • SFOMARCO
          July 26, 2016 at 1:21 am

          This was not an either/or situation. Marjorie Cohn suggested that tear gas c/h/b used. A concussion grenade also comes to mind.

    • Zachary Smith
      July 25, 2016 at 3:05 pm

      Just a thought, if she had a son who had to go in there and arrest this guy using ordinary means, a man who just slaughtered 5 policemen and was no doubt on a drug crazed high, would she let him do it, or would she prefer the robot “bomb?”

      Not everybody has a ‘lynch-mob’ mind-set. As has been pointed out many times, that killer robot could have carried a large canister of tear gas instead of a bomb. In fact, it could have dragged along a hose and kept the area saturated with noxious gas and smoke after the initial release.

      The police chose to be judge, jury, and executioner.

      And you definitely appear to approve.

      • Annie
        July 25, 2016 at 6:27 pm

        They negotiated with him for 2 hours, and lets not forget there were a number, maybe seven, police officers who were injured by this guy as well as the 5 dead. I definitely do not have a lynch-mob mentality, and I’m not going to condemn the police for protecting themselves. He was delusional, incommunicable , smeared signs across the walls in blood. Lot of talk about them using that bomb but what about the lie that he was prevented from getting a fair trial, which is almost nonexistent in this country?

        • Dfnslblty
          July 25, 2016 at 9:52 pm

          Negotiate until Beijing has clean air;
          State must not respond with brutal violence;
          Violence is NOT the remedy for communities.
          Demilitarize the cops!

  2. Ol' Hippy
    July 25, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    As witnessed here it’s often far easier to execute a criminal than to wait them out so they can stand trial by due process. This whole peaceful demonstration was to protest exactly what was carried out for the whole country to see in high def on the news. This use of force by police departments is nothing new but it’s come to light of late because of all those pesky cellphone videos. Good! But this still doesn’t address the real problem of accountability. Of the few officers that do get charged and prosecuted, very few still actually get convicted. What I believe was a public execution by a drone robot, with a bomb no less, just ups the ante toward the police state that used to only occur in dystopic novels of the future. We need a complete re-tooling of the civilian enforcers from the top down. A policy that includes waiting, even if extra shifts are required and perhaps less high speed chases that end in tragedy some times. Why send multiple units as a show of force when a unit parked at the end of the street would suffice? To sum up this extreme show of force, even though he killed officers that certainly didn’t deserve to die, needs to be addressed to keep more violence such as this from occurring even more often. A scheme that starts at the very top for a start.

  3. David G
    July 25, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    While the use of a killer robot is troubling to the author, to me, and doubtless to many others, I am pretty sure that concern will get no purchase with the public at large. We are just completely unequipped as a culture to think about such issues.

    Another thing that will also be ignored, but in principle could be addressed, is the fact of the killing itself when, as Marjorie Cohn says, “[t]he legal question is whether the officers reasonably believed Johnson posed an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to them at the time they deployed the robot to kill him”.

    I think it is fairly clear that the Dallas police thought they had wasted enough time on a multiple cop killer, and decided to execute him. There are police forces in the world that would consider it a failure not to have gotten this man safely into custody, but not in Dallas, or probably anywhere else in the U.S.

    • Dfnslblty
      July 25, 2016 at 9:54 pm

      Bravo

      Custody Not combustion

    • Annie
      July 25, 2016 at 9:54 pm

      Your argument is based more on assumptions, based on your own particular bias, rather then facts, which doesn’t make for a good argument.

  4. alexander
    July 26, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Dear Marjorie,

    Thank you for another super article. Really good. please keep them coming.

    I don’t like the entire sequencing of events leading up to the grand Dallas finale of our newly minted “killer robot” suicide bombing the “alleged” perpetrator.

    Considering that none of us are sure, to a certainty, he was the shooter, the entire Dallas event is highly suspicious.

    If the desired effect was to mug , steal, and abscond with the “outrage” of the earlier brutal killings….and re-graft it to sympathy for our fallen officers (and by proxy, sympathy for our police state)……it worked like a charm.

    Instead of the outrage of the earlier killings leading to a shakeup of the impunity of the totalitarian state,
    the Dallas event functioned to rapidly shift polarities ,leading to a a virtual ” forgetting” of the earlier crimes, and a buttressing of even more Police State practices.

    As sad as I am for the fallen officers and the lives stolen from them, I cannot help but perceive this twisted event as a boon for totalitarianism and a sneaky way of deflecting away from much needed reform.

    A nasty and very fishy business, in my book.

  5. July 29, 2016 at 8:41 am

    annie got her gun-
    it was a fairly short op/ed piece, did you miss the couple times she mentioned about using a tear gas/whatever canister instead of a bomb ? ? ?
    but, no, let’s go *right* to Plan A: KILL!KILL!KILL!…

    you can be sure if it were protesters being targeted, shot, killed; the anti-micah would not have met deadly force…

    further, you know what, YES it IS their job to ACTUALLY expose themselves to danger as part of their job (supposedly) serving the public (but actually serving Empire)…
    firefighters are killed on the job about twice the rate of kops…
    (killed, as in murdered, not died from smoke inhalation, etc; that is a separate category)
    do the news media cover firefighter funerals ? do you cry ?
    cabbies and minute mart clerks are murdered on the job about 4-5-6 times the rate of kops…
    do you doff your hat, bow your head, and observe a moment of silence at a football game for the brave brothers and sisters who gave their lives in the line of duty selling donuts and coffee ? ? ?
    maybe we should…
    …or maybe we should have crafted a better society where para-military police are not SOP…

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