Should Police Use Robots to Kill?

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Dallas police used a “bomb robot” today to a kill a suspected gunman involved in the murder of five police officers and the wounding of seven others. The decision to kill the suspect using a robot armed with an explosive, was made after an hours-long standoff. Dallas police chief David Brown said, after negotiations “broke down,” the suspect and police officers exchanged gunfire.

“Other options would have exposed our officers in grave danger,” Brown said.

The decision to use a bomb robot is raising concerns about due process and how police adopt the use of new military technology. Although it’s not new for police agencies to use robots, typically used for non-lethal force, it is new for cops to use a robot to kill a suspect. As robots become more sophisticated and potentially automated, using them as weapons will spark tricky legal and ethical issues for law enforcement.

“As a legal matter, the choice of weapon in a decision to use lethal force does not change the constitutional calculus, which hinges on whether an individual poses an imminent threat to others, and whether the use of lethal force is reasonable under the circumstances,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, said in an email to Gizmodo.


But Stanley said the easy and relatively safe use of ground robots that can deploy deadly force could mean they could be overused: “Remote uses of force raise policy issues that should be carefully considered...and should remain confined to extraordinary situations,” he said.

Elizabeth Joh, law professor at University of California Davis, agrees and said just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it should be adopted.


“Should we send in a robot that has one purpose—to inflict death or serious bodily harm—if non-lethal alternative is available? Perhaps that wasn’t possible in Dallas, but that is a question police departments, who will adopt robots in the future, should address.”


The Fourth Amendment governs the circumstances in which police can resort to deadly force, Joh said, and courts look closely at the factual circumstances of each case to determine whether the use of force was objectively reasonable.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, said the use of robots also doesn’t affect the decision process police should go through when deciding to use deadly force. “If the police reasonably believe that someone poses an imminent danger of death to others, and that killing him is necessary to prevent that danger, they can try to kill him,” he said in an email to Gizmodo. “That has been the understanding throughout American history, and the Due Process Clause doesn’t prevent that; and this understanding applies just as much to bomb robots as it does to guns.”


Joh added that she wouldn’t be surprised if the Dallas events led to more police departments across the country investing in robots equipped with lethal or non-lethal force. “The use of robots in these situations by the police is understandable. Using a robot can avoid police injuries or, as in this tragedy, death. This is a new technology that will raise a number of legal and ethical questions, particularly as robots become more sophisticated.”

More sophisticated robots could conceivably involve more automation. If that happens, it would raise more questions about who is actually making the call to use deadly force.


“I think it was an inventive way to use the robot,” said Tom Frost, president of Endeavor Robotics, which makes robots that were used in the Boston bombing manhunt. “If you use the robot in that fashion and it has a weapon on it, our position is that you have to have a man in a loop. The robot isn’t making any decisions. The human is there to make decisions. In this case, it seems like that’s what happened.”

Peter W. Singer, an expert in military technology at New America Foundation, said in a tweet that he believes this is the first known incident of US police using a robot to kill a suspect.


“It is the first deliberately,” he said in an email to Gizmodo. “There has been sketchy reporting on an accidental case in Tennessee, where a tear gas canister shot during a standoff accidentally started a fire that burned down a mobile home, but it seems different as, if factual, was still an accident.”