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The militarization of policing through robots

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Last week the world woke up to the devastating news that their had been two fatal shootings of black civilians by US policeman. In response, communities across the US gathered in peaceful protest against the spate of race related police brutality, which has shocked not only the US but the rest of the world. But on Friday, events took another sinister turn, when Micah Xavier Johnson fatally shot five police officers and wounded seven more. Before being killed himself, by what is the first time in US history by a robot.

 

Using a bomb disposal robot with an explosive device on its manipulator arm, Dallas police officers were able to take out the gunman quickly and effectively with no further harm to other civilians. The decision to use the robot was taken, after hours of negotiations with the gunman and a series of gunfire exchange between him and police officers.

Whilst, the Dallas police department took the decision in order to minimise the grave exposure officers found themselves in and after all other options had been considered, the use of the robot has sparked a mass debate about this new method of law enforcement, which sees the increasing militarization of policing.

 

The robot used in Dallas was a Northrop Grumman Remotec Andros model, it is a remotely controlled bomb disposal robot frequently used by the police and military. Robots have been widely used in law enforcement in the US since the 1990’s to act as bomb disposals or to communicate with suspects/hostages.

The Pentagon’s 1033 programme passed in 1997 allowed for the transfer of excess military technology to local and state law enforcement agencies. Since 1997, 8,000 local law enforcement agencies have taken part in the re-appropriation of over $5.1 billion worth of military hardware.

 

With a police officer dyeing in the US in the line of duty every 61 hours, will the introduction of police robotics provide a safer environment for both police officers and civilians? It’s too early to predict whether safety is viable, but what is certain is that police robotics brings with it a host of new legal, ethical and technical questions. With a lack of regulations and policies, the use of police robotics requires greater analysis; if something were to go wrong who would be accountable? What kind of weapons could these robots carry and perhaps more fundamentally in what kind of situations could we warrant their use?
But with the success of their use in Dallas, we can confidently assume that police robotics and the continued use of drones for surveillance tactics, will become more widespread across law enforcement as viable weapons options. Whilst they will not fix the underlying problems of crime in the US, they may just provide an element of calm in a panicked confrontation between citizens and police officers, perhaps making the situation safer for everyone involved.

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