In a press conference, after the neutralization of the Dallas shooter, Chief David Brown said “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 grave danger. The suspect is deceased…He’s been deceased because of a detonation of the bomb.”
I’m sure no one is shedding a tear for the shooter who killed five police officers during a peaceful rally in Dallas, on July 7th. But, some might be surprised by the way the police killed him. A bomb strapped robot was used to take out the sniper. This is the first incident of police using a robot to neutralize a threat, but it isn’t the first incident of police using odd tactics to take out dangerous threats.
In 1981, Philadelphia police arrived at a house that served as the headquarters of a communal Black Liberation movement called MOVE. The group had had run-ins with the police before and wasn’t on good terms with the city government. One incident between the group and police led to the first, and only police bombing of a civilian center. After failing to arrest four members of the group at their headquarters, gun fire was exchanged and the siege of the house lasted 24 hours. The siege ended with the commissioner ordering two bombs to be dropped on the makeshift bunker compound on the roof of the house. The bomb, supplied by the FBI was dropped from a Philadelphia police helicopter onto the roof. The bomb set-off a fire that spread to the surrounding house, destroying 62 houses and leaving 250 people homeless, and killing 11 MOVE members, including 5 children. A federal jury eventually found the city of Philadelphia liable for the fires, guilty of using excessive force, and of violating the movement’s constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
The incident was described by one resident as “like Vietnam,” and Philadelphia got the nickname “The city that bombed itself.” And although this incident is as rare as the Dallas bomb robot, it does bring up the debate of police militarization. With the increased use of SWAT teams (from 3,000 strikes in 1980, to 80,000 a year now, with 4 out of 10 raids finding no contraband), and armored vehicles, it’s a legitimate worry. Thanks to increased police militarization, is there cause for concern of more “bomb robots” being utilized by police? More importantly, how does this issue affect millennials?
Millennials are already familiar with police abuse. A recent study from The Black Youth Project found that only 42% of young blacks trust the police, compared with 71% of young whites and 59% of young Latinos. When asked if they or anyone they know has “experienced harassment or violence at the hands of the police” 54% of blacks, 32% of whites, and 24% of Latinos said yes. And only 27% of blacks believed the justice system treated everyone equally, compared with 41% of Whites and 37% of Latinos. Couple these views with the militarization of the police and the moving away from community policing to broken-window policing and you can see the connection.
Robots aren’t new to police departments, but using them to kill off threats just adds to the problem. Lethal force has become a problem for American police. Most deaths by police involved lethal or excessive force. Police said they “feared for their lives” but when the footage comes out, the situation looks anything but threatening.
My fear with this “bomb robot” incident is that it will act as a precedent. Millennials are distrustful of the police, and want accountability. If we’re going to rebuild trust between the police and their communities, we’ve got to make sure that incidents like these are few and far between. Back in 1981, police bombed a residential building, luckily, that was the only instance. 2016 was the first instance of a robot being used to kill off a threat. I’m hoping this is the only time it happens, but in a world of increased militarization and abuse, I’m not that optimistic. Then again, this isn’t the biggest police issue we have to worry about. A generation is growing up with an increased distrust in police, and no one seems that into fixing it.