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A Killer Robot Ended the Dallas Sniper Suspect’s Holdout. Would That Fly in San Francisco?

“If we can’t agree on Tasers, we’re not going to agree on a robot that blows people up.”

 

Watching from afar as the carnage unfolded yesterday at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas—at least five officers are dead and seven wounded after a sniper (or snipers) opened fire, sending marchers fleeing for their lives—many a San Franciscan likely wondered if it could happen here. Well, it could. But could the finale of Dallas’s horrifying day, in which the Dallas Police Department killed a cornered sniper suspect with a bomb carried by a robot, also happen here? Well—it could. 

Deploying a killer robot is a crossing of a legal and technological Rubicon. And, separate and apart from the horrific acts of yet another mass shooter using a readily available weapon of war to turn our streets into a war zone, police use of a remote-controlled robot to kill a barricaded suspect has left local cops, civil libertarians, and lawyers more than a little uneasy. “Part of me says ‘I get it,’” says Carl T, a retired 32-year San Francisco police officer who served as a hostage and crisis negotiator. “But part of me says, ‘This is nuts.’ Police using a bomb to kill a guy? That’s a little shocking.” 

In case you’re wondering, yes, the SFPD does have bomb-disposal robots similar to the one deployed to kill Dallas sniper suspect Micah Johnson. And, yes, we do have bombs—it’s not unheard of for a robot to be used to place a bomb on a “highly fortified residence” to breach a door during a raid. But could a robot be used offensively by the SFPD? The department hasn’t yet responded to our straightforward query. But Police Commission president Suzy Loftus confirms that there “is nothing in our Departmental General Orders about a robot.” Among all the devices and items listed in the use-of-force stipulations, adds public defender Jeff Adachi, a robot isn’t among them. 

T—who legally changed his name from Tennenbaum—spent years talking down barricaded gunmen and would-be jumpers; if there had been any SFPD dialog—at all—about using robots offensively, he says he’d have heard about it. He hasn’t. (Other departments have been more cavalier about deploying robots; one equipped with “chemical munitions” ended up torching an Albuquerque trailer home only two years ago). But, T notes, there are no rules explicitly preventing the SFPD from using bombs or robots or robots with bombs to neutralize a suspect. “I hate to quote the old saying, but it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission,” he says. Minus specific prohibitions, “then they’re going to do it. I do have my concerns.” 

So do the lawyers. Jim Chanin, who has sued the Oakland Police Department hundreds of times by his own account, said that, at the very least, there needs to be a policy involved—“just like with the use of every other piece of equipment, especially when it involves deadly force.” While use of a killer robot could be justified in a situation where police would have already been entitled to shoot a suspect, Chanin worried that we may be headed toward an expansion of the use of lethal force. “The last thing we think about is using force where it is not allowed by existing court decisions and legislation,” he says. “We can’t go down that road, tempting as it is.” 

Adachi is inclined to agree. Far from killer robots, the SFPD doesn’t even possess Radio Shack technology such as drones (the city’s only drones were purchased by the Recreation and Park Department—which cannot fly them as, notably, no policy has yet been written regarding their use. That didn’t prevent one from being stolen, however). The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, Adachi continues, will use its drones to chase suspects fleeing a raid. And, in San Jose, a bomb disposal robot was used not to deliver explosives but a pizza and cell phone to a suspect. That worked out well, Adachi concedes. But he doesn’t foresee an agreement in this city anytime soon regarding killer robots. “If we can’t agree on Tasers,” he says, “We’re not going to agree on a robot that blows people up.” 

Like Chanin, Adachi says that use of a killer robot could be justified in situations where deadly force is called for. His concern is that sending in the robot may become too easy a call. “Is it going to make it more likely the police are going to use that as opposed to some other non-lethal means like tear gas?” he asks. “The fear is, they become the stand-in solution every time the police can’t get someone to comply. Even with a mass murderer, if the police can take someone into custody safely, they have an obligation to do so.” 

The 32-year cop T, however, says the notion of departments adopting and codifying rules for Robocop-like weapons remains far-fetched, as the chances of a Dallas-like incident recurring, too, remain far-fetched. Then he pauses. “I hope I’m right about that.”  

 

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