Was the Use of a Bomb Disposal Robot to Kill the Dallas Shooting Suspect the First Drone Strike in the US?

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Before the shooting started, the protest was going well, and the police even posed for pictures and shared them on social media.

Before the shooting started, the protest was going well, and the police even posed for pictures and shared them on social media.

The hastily assembled Black Lives Matter protest held in downtown Dallas yesterday was a textbook example of how a protest should be handled. It was peaceful, focused, well-organized and the Dallas Police Department, widely considered one of the more progressive in the country, were supportive and non-threatening. Throughout the protest the police presence was subdued, and officers even took pictures with protesters and posted positive and supportive messages on social media. In total about 1000 protesters and about 100 police officers were gathered together, and just as the event was ending, gunmen began to open fire on the quickly dispersing crowd.

By all accounts the Dallas Police Department is a model of what our modern police departments should be. They embrace their community, encourage multi-cultural hiring and stress de-escalation community policing techniques. In the face of increasing tensions between many minority communities and the police, Dallas cut theirs in half. They pioneered many community policing techniques that are now used as models for the country, and they cut excessive-force complaints against officers from 147 in 2009 to 13 in 2015. There are probably only a handful of police departments that would be considered less likely to be the victims of an attack of this magnitude, especially as retaliation for police brutality. And that makes this attack, somehow, even more horrific.

Dallas Police officers take cover while under fire.

Dallas Police officers take cover while under fire.

As if being fired on wouldn’t be terrifying enough, the Dallas Police quickly realized that protesters weren’t the targets; they were. Within a horrifyingly short amount of time, the gunmen had murdered 5 officers, and a total of 12 officers had been shot as well as 2 protesters who were fleeing the scene. The next few hours were marked by confusion as dozens of protesters found themselves trapped while they waited for the all clear, and officers continued to trade fire with a suspect. Around midnight, according to the Dallas Police, the last suspect was pinned down in a parking garage at El Centro College.

An un-named victim of the Dallas shootings is treated on the scene by paramedics.

An un-named victim of the Dallas shootings is treated on the scene by paramedics.

I don’t think there was much doubt about the suspect’s guilt, and he made his motives in the killings abundantly clear while the police were attempting to talk to him into surrendering. This was a retaliation for the murder of two black men, in entirely different states, over the previous two days, a gesture that I feel comfortable saying was entirely unwelcome by everyone outraged by those senseless killings. When the Dallas Police were unable to subdue the suspect, and the officers felt that continuing the firefight would only put more of their officers at risk, they made a decision to send a bomb disposal robot into the garage and detonate a charge near the gunman, killing him. There is no doubt in my mind that the choice to end the standoff in this manner wasn’t an easy one, and doing so most likely saved lives.

“We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was…other options would have exposed our officers to great danger. The suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb,” said Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown.

A Northrop Grumman Andros bomb disposing robot.

A Northrop Grumman Andros bomb disposing robot.

There is no blame to be placed upon anyone except the murderers who chose to open fire on the innocent, both police officers and protesters alike. I have no sympathy for the gunmen; all that I have to go around is being given to the families of the officers who died or those who are currently struggling to survive their injuries. This tragedy is the horrifically inevitable result of a virtually unacknowledged arms race between the police and criminals in this country that has been going on for years, and last night it was just escalated. According to experts, this appears to be the first domestic use of an unmanned robot, effectively a “ground drone,” to kill an American citizen, and I’m not sure that I can feel anything other than dread for what that means for us as a nation.

According to Popular Science, the bomb disposal robot that was used to kill the shooter last night was either a Northrop Grumman Andros F6A or a F6B. While this was a device that was created to save lives, not take them, the ease with which it was used to kill someone is chilling. The robot was equipped with a gripper arm that is intended to be used to remove explosive devices from areas where they can cause harm, and its articulated tracks and pneumatic wheels were designed to allow it to move steadily and swiftly, even over rocky or uneven terrain. It was a device designed and built to save lives, and instead it was fitted with an explosive device and sent into a building to kill someone.

It is easy, and probably reassuring, to tell ourselves that these were extraordinary circumstances and are unlikely to be repeated. But that is something that we as a nation have been telling ourselves for years. After each horrific crime committed with firearms in this country we all tell ourselves the same thing. We told ourselves that just a few weeks ago in the wake of Orlando, and we told ourselves that a few years ago in the wake of Sandy Hook. It stretches all the way back to the 1990’s, when two bank robbers with military grade body armor and automatic weapons overwhelmed the LAPD with superior firepower. We’ve been telling ourselves that it was just extraordinary circumstances for so long that we’ve barely noticed the ongoing escalation of the arms race in this country. Police departments now have their own automatic rifles, and they have tanks, and they have body armor. They are virtually indistinguishable from a military force at this point, and last night they just used a robot to kill a man.

Currently, our military uses highly advanced, unmanned Predator drones to make precision attacks against our enemies. The drone pilots fly them as if they were playing a video game, and as drone technology improves, so does our country’s drone program. Drone technology, albeit outdated at this point, that was originally used in military situations has already found itself in the service of police departments. They use them to monitor traffic, they use them to patrol our country’s borders and they use them in surveillance situations. How long until those drones are equipped with tasers? How long until they are equipped with tear gas? How long until they are equipped with sonic, crowd-dispersing weapons? And how long until they are equipped with the same missiles that our military Predator drones are currently equipped with?

A US military Predator drone.

A US military Predator drone.

And an even more pressing question, especially in the wake of using a robot to deliver a bomb last night, is how long before inexpensive, commercial drones are used by the same madmen who use automatic guns now to deliver explosives to their victims? How long before homemade pipe bombs are flown into large crowds with cheap drones that can be purchased at Walmart or from Amazon – drones that can be directed with inexpensive RC technology and a GoPro mounted underneath them? How long until someone uses a desktop 3D printer to modify existing drone technology to transform it from a fun toy into a weapon of violence? We know it is possible; we’ve already seen drones that industrious makers have equipped with firearms and flamethrowers.

Military or police? Can you even tell the difference anymore?

Military or police? Can you even tell the difference anymore?

I’m sure there will be more than a few of you reading this who feel like I’m overselling what happened last night, or perhaps letting my imagination run wild. But I ask you to really look back at the history of gun violence in this country, especially the last few decades, and tell me that each side hasn’t escalated the levels of violence in response to the other. Gun manufacturers are making some of the most advanced firearms technology available to the general public, and in response the police have invested in their own advanced weapons. They have invested in an ever growing list of technology that was previously only available to the military, but now is available to almost every police officer in the country.

I’m not willing, or even in the position, to apply any blame to anyone. I feel nothing but pain and profound sadness over the violence that happened in Dallas last night. I have nothing but sympathy for the gunman’s victims, and the officers who made the difficult choice to end his life. But last night the police used technology, originally developed for the military, to deliver a bomb to a man in order to kill him. It isn’t that I believe there were better options available to the police; I am in absolutely no position to make that determination. But I can’t escape the feeling that something changed last night, something that all of us should acknowledge. There are always going to be extraordinary circumstances, but are we really okay with there always being an extraordinary response? Last night the functional equivalent of a drone was used on American soil to kill an American citizen, and at the very least we need to think about what that means, and we need to ask ourselves if we’re really okay with that. Discuss further over in the Bomb Disposal Robot in Dallas forum at



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