Police in Dallas responded to fatal sniper fire Thursday night with what may be an unprecedented tactic. After negotiations with the suspect broke down, police decided to send in a robot armed with an explosive device which they detonated, killing Micah Xavier Johnson, 25.
"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," Dallas Police Chief David Brown said at a news conference Friday morning. "Other options would have exposed our officers to great danger. The suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb."
While some experts say this is the first time a bomb disposal robot has been used to kill an armed suspect in the U.S., robots have been used to kill targets in Iraq, according to defense expert Peter Singer, author of “The Changing Character of War.”
“If they thought an insurgent was hiding in an alley, they would send a MARCbot down first, and if they found someone waiting in ambush, take him out with the Claymore."
Domestically, police departments across the country have been using the technology thanks to the military’s 1033 Program, which distributes surplus military equipment to police departments. SWAT teams have used robots modified with an X-ray to detect and safely detonate explosives.
In 2012, police used a bomb-removal robot to enter the apartment of Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting suspect James Holmes. After killing 12 people, Holmes told law enforcement he had rigged his apartment with explosives. The robot was sent in a third-story window and disabled potential improvised explosive devices and fuel near the door to the apartment.
“This apartment was designed to kill whoever entered it,” Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said, following the operation. The robot also found containers of accelerants, as well as wires and fuses throughout the apartment that it successfully neutralized so law enforcement could safely enter and search the apartment.
The following year, police used a robot to apprehend Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was hiding in a boat beneath a tarp. Before they approached Tsarnaev, officials used a remote-controlled tactical robot to determine whether or not the vehicle used by the suspect contained any explosives. After the machine determined there wasn’t a threat, law enforcement officials moved in on Tsarnaev.
The robots have also been used in lower-profile incidents, like a 2015 standoff in California where the highway patrol used a bomb squad robot to disarm a man with a knife on an overpass in San Jose. Police directed the robot to approach the man with a phone and a pizza, telling him the robot would release the pizza if he picked up the phone to talk with negotiators. The man did so and an hour later dropped his knife and walked away from the scene.