First off, the killings last night in Dallas at the conclusion of an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter rally was horrible and abhorrent and straight-up mass murder. Five police officers died, and five others (as well as two civilians) were wounded. It was barbaric and horrible.
The sniper (and so far, there only seems to have been one) put Dallas law enforcement in an ugly spot. But their method of resolving the situation raises new, uncomfortable questions that affect us even out here on Maui.
In short, after apparently prolonged and ultimately fruitless negotiations with the alleged sniper during a stand-off, Dallas police deployed one of their “bomb robots.” Though normally designed to get close to explosives and then either defuse or detonate them, the Dallas PD instead equipped their robot with an explosive of its own. After directing the robot relatively close to the suspected sniper, they remotely detonated the bomb, killing the suspected sniper.
For lack of a better term, it was a drone killing. Law enforcement has long had the authorization to use deadly force, but if this seems, well, unprecedented, that’s because it is. Here’s today’s Washington Post on the ramifications:
The move represents a potentially unprecedented use of robots to deliberately deliver lethal force in domestic policing, according to experts, raising questions about how local law enforcement officials are deploying the high-tech tools that increasingly fill their arsenals.
“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,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a news conference Friday morning. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”
Police departments all over the country–including right here on Maui–have these robots. In 2014, the MPD took possession of a $17,000 robot from Palo Alto-based Robotex called the Avatar II. Here are the specs on it, which we reported back in 2014:
Built by Sunnyvale, California-based RoboteX, it’s called the Avatar II. It looks like a small black tank–maybe two feet long, 15 inches across and six inches deep, according a company brochure posted on its website. It weighs 25 pounds without its battery. It can operate 300 yards or so from its base, go four to five hours before draining the battery and climb a 60 degree incline.
Maui PD officials have refused to discuss how they would use the Avatar–and not just to me, either. In a 2013 budget hearing, then-Deputy Chief Clayton Tom refused to answer County Councilmember Don Guzman’s harmless question about the robot’s dimensions.
That being said, Tom and then-Chief Gary Yabuta did admit to the County Council during that 2013 hearing that their Avatar robot could be equipped with a gun (though Yabuta insisted to the Council the MPD would not do that). But could their robot hold a bomb, then use it the way Dallas PD did?
“Our robot has that same capability,” MPD spokesman Lt. Gregg Okamoto emailed me today.
In light of what went down in Dallas last night, the Maui County Council needs to hold a public hearing on what, exactly, the Maui Police Department can and should do with their robot (and any other robots they get in the future). The county’s taxpayers paid for the robot, and we all need to know a great deal more about both what it can do, and what the MPD should do with it.
Photo of the RoboteX Avatar: Intel Free Press/Wikimedia Commons