On Robots That Kill

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July 11, 2016

On Friday July 8, 2016 it was announced to the world that the Dallas Police Department had used a robot to detonate a bomb and kill the suspected sniper who claimed the lives of five Dallas Police Officers, wounded seven other officers, and wounded two civilians. If you were like me, your early reactions to this fact that at first often got buried in news stories, was “wait…who had a bomb?” before realizing that the bomb squad now sets off bombs, with the intent to kill, as opposed to disarming them.

The decision to not only use a bomb, but to use a robot to kill the suspect represents a turning point in the history of US policing. While the US government routinely deploys drones overseas to carry out extrajudicial executions and the Philadelphia Police dropped a bomb on the Black Liberation group MOVE in 1985, as far as, anyone can tell this is the first time police have used a bomb wielding robot to kill a suspect domestically.

This grim milestone has grave significance. First, by deploying this type of weapon the domestic police are becoming further militarized. Not only do they have military style weapons, body armor, and tanks; police now have robots that use lethal force. Second, the use of a robot to kill a suspect raises serious constitutional and due process issues. As  Marjorie Cohn professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and expert on the legality of targeted killings explained to Common Dreams, “Police cannot use deadly force unless there’s an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to them or other people.” Per Cohn, absent an imminent danger, due process requires the police to “wait him out” and bring him to trial. Since at the time of his death, the suspect was “was holed up in a parking garage,” Cohn maintains there was no imminent danger and police violated the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.

Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union has pointed out, “As a legal matter, the choice of weapon in a decision to use lethal force does not change the constitutional calculus[…]” Others have argued that the use of a robot is no different than using a police officer to shoot a suspect. While it is true that it is whether the threat was imminent that determines whether law enforcement’s use of lethal force was legal, robots pose unique constitutional issues, making them more than just another weapon. By its very design it means that law enforcement are not present and thus calling into question whether they are facing an imminent threat of death or grave harm. The robot, unlike (in theory) police, also has only one purpose–to kill. With the presence of police there is still possibility of capture (no matter how remote), not so with a bomb wielding robot.

It is worth exploring how drones have been used overseas to carry out a campaign of extrajudicial executions. With overseas drones, the US government kills individuals not currently involved in combat or on the battlefield in any conventional sense (notwithstanding the claim that in the “War on Terror” the whole world is a battlefield). Instead individuals are assassinated, via an unmanned drone most likely controlled thousands of miles away, at precisely a time when they don’t pose an imminent threat, because their very existence is deemed a threat or because they might commit future acts at an undisclosed time. The decision about the future danger is made without any sort of process that allows the assassinated to participate or refute the claims of the US government. Some would question whether the situation in Dallas was analogous, afterall the suspect was an “active shooter” and his acts of violence occurred within close proximity to his death. The Dallas Police claim they had no other option. Still the use of a so-called threat, to remotely unleash lethal force has led to killings violating Constitutional (when US citizens are involved) or international standards of due process.

The legacy of drone-based extrajudicial executions abroad should give pause about how killer robots might be used at home.  Once we legitimize killing an individual remotely on the grounds they pose a “threat” from a distance it gets easier to see how we can enter a situation in which future or ongoing “threats” are used to legitimize a blanket policy of assassinations. Given the acceptance of such actions in our overseas drone policy and the domestic epidemic of police killings, the threshold that was crossed last week in Dallas paints a frightening picture of our future.