Image: AP

After Dallas police officers used a bomb-carrying robot last month to kill the sniper Micah X. Johnson, it was widely reported that the incident marked the first time an American law enforcement agency had used that technique. But it appears that the bombing was not only unprecedented, but utterly unplanned-for: According to the Dallas Police Department’s open records team, the department has no written rules, guidelines, or protocols for how or when to use bomb-carrying robots against suspects.

On July 7, Johnson opened fire on a group of Dallas police officers who were patrolling a protest, killing five officers and injuring nine others. When police apprehended Johnson, they used a Remotec ANDROS Mark V-A1 robot that was rigged with about a pound of C4 plastic explosives to kill him, keeping officers away from danger. The Mark V-A1 is generally used to dispose of bombs, not to deploy them.

Gawker filed a request with the department under the Texas Public Information Act seeking any departmental doctrine for using a bomb-carrying robot against a suspect, including but not limited to the use of the Remotec model. Last week, the department responded via email that “A search was made within the Dallas Police Department by the respective Divisions(s) for this information and no records were found.” (Emphasis theirs.)

Debra Webb, a public information officer with the DPD, told Gawker that based on the verbiage of the response, it is safe to assume that no records outlining departmental doctrine for the use of bomb-carrying robots against suspects exist. The apparent lack of any written plans would seem to confirm that officers on the ground came up with the killer robot strategy on the fly, as several experts suggested to the Intercept several days after the shootings.

After being notified that the Dallas Police Department had no records in response to the request, Gawker also received correspondence from the Dallas city attorney’s office, indicating that it intends to seek a ruling from the Texas Attorney General on whether to release the requested information. A representative of the DPD’s open records team said that this correspondence likely referred to the second portion of Gawker’s request, which asked for doctrine governing the use of the Remotec model in general—not in bomb deployment specifically. Those records, according to the DPD, do not exist.

The department’s apparent lack of established protocol for using bomb-carrying robots is striking, especially considering the detail with which it regulates officer use of nonlethal weapons. As of 2015, for instance, the DPD’s use-of-force policy contained a three-page section devoted to the use of pepper spray and pepper balls, and another four pages devoted to electronic control weapons, which are better known as tasers.

Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s criminal law reform project, called the department’s lack of doctrine on bomb-carrying robots “highly concerning and highly problematic.” “We want our police departments that have obtained remote-controlled robots that can be used to explode human beings and kill them to have policies about their use,” he said.

Edwards drew an analogy between law enforcement use of lethal robots and the use of tasers. Tasers, he said, were originally developed as a less-lethal alternative to handguns, to be used only when an officer is facing a mortal threat. But because of their ease of use, they are now deployed whenever “someone is being disobedient, or someone is giving you attitude, or they’re taking too long, or there’s some kind of threat, but not one that puts the officer’s life in danger,” he said. Similarly, though they are intended for extreme circumstances only, remote-controlled robots might become overused if they are not closely regulated, because they make it easier and safer to deploy lethal force compared to a more direct confrontation with a suspect.

Edwards added that the ACLU does not oppose to the use of robots to kill suspects in general, as long as the use of lethal force in a given scenario is otherwise lawful. “Once a decision has been made to use lethal force, assuming that decision is made lawfully and it comports with the Fourth Amendment, it wouldn’t make sense to hold that such force can only be applied in person by an officer and not by a remotely controlled robot, particularly if doing so would put the officer’s life at greater risk,” he said. “They really should be confined to extraordinary situations, and certainly Dallas appears to be an extraordinary circumstance.”

The Dallas Police Department did not comment on the rationale behind its decision to deploy a robot against Johnson without having protocols for the use of robots in place. “We’re not commenting on any of the specifics or anything like that, since everything’s still under investigation,” Webb said. In a statement after the incident, the department said that the robot was used “as a last resort, to deliver an explosion device to save the lives of officers and citizens.”

Charles J. Key, a retired Baltimore police lieutenant who was a founding member of that department’s first SWAT team, told Gawker that he was not surprised that the DPD had no doctrine for deploying a bomb-carrying robot, and that it was likely that the technician who was operating the robot had not been trained specifically to deploy a bomb. “I’m sure that this was all a last minute, ‘Can we do this this way?’ procedure,” he said. “I’m not sure on the mechanics of how it was done—whether they placed the charge and removed the robot before activating it or not. Those little devils are expensive.”

However, Key said, the technician was almost certainly trained to disassemble a bomb with a robot, and activating one would be a fairly simple reversal of that procedure. He believes that deploying a bomb was the wisest choice for the situation, even without established doctrine. “Police were specifically targeted by an individual who had obvious training, obvious fire discipline, and a weapon that was capable, and he knew how to use it. That is the worst situation that you can imagine,” he said. “You send in a SWAT team. They’re highly capable, but you’re still dealing with an adversary in a protected situation. He’s barricaded himself in a place that he can defend, with the probability that anyone who tries to engage him is probably going to lose some team members. As a police officer, particularly in that kind of tactical situation, you try to reach a solution that resolves the threat without further loss of life. Given the choices, I think it was the only choice.”

It is not clear whether other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have developed doctrine for using bomb-carrying robots, before or since the incident in Dallas. In response to a similar request from Gawker, a representative of the Chicago Police Department said that it had no existing doctrine on bomb-carrying robots. The Los Angeles Police Department provided documents regarding the use of deadly force in general, and the use of robots to diffuse bombs, but not the use of robots to deploy bombs. Requests sent to the New York Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation for doctrine regarding bomb-carrying robots have not yet been answered.

Key believes that other law enforcement agencies will likely look to the Dallas incident as a blueprint for their own future policies. “There’s no protocol, but I would imagine that if there is a protocol, it would say, ‘Under these circumstances, see Dallas,’” he said. “That’s the kind of protocol they would adopt.”