Can policing by consent involve remote control bombs and pre-emptive strikes?

Race relations with the US police are again under focus. Erik S Lesser/EPA

Technology makes us capable of things that were previously impossible, such as rapid travel by car or aircraft, or sending messages around the world in an instant. But often technology also changes the way we do those things we’re already capable of. The use of remotely controlled aerial drones to launch strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example.

It is argued that delivering destruction by remote control changes the rules of the game. And the same argument is now directed at police following the events in Dallas, Texas. When Micah Johnson holed himself up in a building having shot and killed several police officers, Dallas Police Department officers ended the stand-off by killing Johnson with an explosive delivered by a remote-controlled robot, something more often used to detonate suspect packages or bombs.

Both of these uses of bomb-by-remote-control are controversial and raises the question of imminent threat.

Critics of drone strikes argue that their surveillance capability leads to many more deaths than would be justified by a strict interpretation of those that are “imminent threats”. This is especially true where “signature strikes” are carried out – those based on the target’s “pattern of life activity”, rather than clear knowledge of the target’s identity, actions or even motivations. Critics argue that this technology makes “targeted killing” a method that is chosen too easily: the lack of accountability of the machine algorithms chewing through surveillance data and recommending action means there is no impediment to their escalating use.

Bomb disposal robot, of the sort used to carry an explosive towards Johnson. JePe, CC BY-SA

For police officers in Dallas, it was clear from his communications that Johnson had no intention of surrender. He had shot 12 of their colleagues, killing five and was adopting “shoot and move” tactics learned from his time in the US army to confuse and evade capture. Under such circumstances, police concluded that any means to take out Johnson was justified. But to other observers, the fact that Johnson was hiding behind a wall when the bomb-disposal robot detonated its explosives – not shooting or directly threatening police – meant the police’s decision looked a lot like summary justice. This raises three issues.

First, did Johnson pose an imminent threat to others when attacked? As far as the police were concerned, it was better to target him while inactive than to wait to engage him when he started a fresh volley of shots. Given the scale of the wounding and killing Johnson had already accomplished, this is a powerful argument.

Second, if they were able to get close to him with a robot, could they not have tried to incapacitate him with a taser, chemical spray or gas, or tranquilliser dart? Using a robot to do so would make this as risk-free to officers as was killing him with explosives. The possibility of using robots in this way to avoid killing armed suspects is another potential solution other than the use of lethal force in situations like these.

Third, is the question of what precedent the police’s actions set for the future. Although the killing was carried out using the fairly old technology of a tracked bomb-disposal robot in a novel way, there is a much larger issue as to the rules of engagement that should govern the use of armed drones or other remote control weapons by police.

Firefighters are already experimenting with small drones that can search burning buildings for bodies to rescue using infrared cameras. It’s only a short step from here to police using the same to search buildings for persons of interest to them. In the UK, drones are already used by the National Crime Agency to see behind buildings and walls and to carry out surveillance on suspects. In these cases, if the suspects were planning to plant a bomb or launch an attack, would the police be justified in using an armed drone to pre-emptively stop such an attack – delivering death by remote control? At what point do we relinquish the idea that the police are there to bring suspects to justice in a court of their peers, and move instead towards a military-style approach of defence through use of force – if necessary, pre-emptive force.

The potential use of drones, particularly as they become smaller, for crime or terrorist purposes is of great concern. How we are to counter these potential threats, and to respond in general to these early iterations of the robotic revolution are up for debate. The events in Dallas are but the first chapter of a controversy that has only just begun.