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Dallas' Bomb-Deploying Robot Raises Eyebrows

The Dallas PD's use of the rolling RoboCop with attached explosive following a negotiation breakdown between police and a deadly sniper has raised legal and ethical questions.

(TNS) -- The Dallas Police Department's decision to use a robot to stop the deadly sniper marked an apparent first for law enforcement.

Though robots increasingly offer law enforcement officers safer access to dangerous situations, the use of the robot early Friday morning marked one of the few - if not the only - instance of American officers using a robot to kill a civilian on U.S. soil.

"Technology moves forward, even in policing," said Melissa Hamilton, a University of Houston Law Center professor and former police officer. "It can move forward in what appears here to be a beneficial way to protect police lives so that they don't have to go in."

The decision to deploy the rolling RoboCop in Dallas safeguarded lives, experts said, but triggered discussion of how such robots should best be used in a civilian population.

Five officers were killed and seven officers were wounded during an attack on police following a Black Lives Matter demonstration late Thursday in downtown Dallas. Two civilians were also wounded.

Dallas police eventually cornered the suspect in the parking garage of downtown El Centro College and began extended negotiations. But when the talks with Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, fell apart, police sent in a bomb squad robot with an attached explosive.

Johnson died in the explosion.

Hamilton said authorities will likely investigate the incident, similar to how they probe shootings by police officers, to ensure the use was handled properly.

"From what I can tell, it was good all the way around," she said.

Robots are deployed by Houston police and agencies across the country but traditionally are used for bomb disposal or reconnaissance.

Acting Houston Police Chief Martha Montalvo declined to critique the actions of Dallas police.

"Every situation is different, and decisions are made based on the facts," she said.

The Houston Police Department has robots, including one used by the bomb squad and another by police negotiators and the SWAT team.

Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York, said the way the robot was used in Dallas broke new ground.

"It is unusual, if not unheard of, for a robot to be used to actually take out a subject, use lethal force against a subject," he said. "The trend of robotics in police use and drones in police use really migrated from the military."

Mack Traynor, chief executive officer of ReconRobotics, a private company, said such equipment is used around the world every day.

"They are used for reconnaissance purposes, so you can determine who the bad guys are, where they are, and where they are positioned in a room before you crash the party, " he said.

Larry Karson, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown, said he supports the use of the robot in Dallas.

"Like the president has chosen to use drones rather than risking American pilots' lives to kill terrorists, using a robot is similar," he said. "This wasn't a Kumbaya moment, or where we are dealing with someone who is having mental-health problems and has a butter knife. This is about the police dealing with a mass murderer."

Former Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said he would have used a robot-delivered bomb to end the standoff.

He said police commanders had 12 officers shot and needed to neutralize their attacker.

"Before I would risk another officer being shot or killed, I would have burst through the door myself and gone one-on-one with him," McClelland said. "I would have almost been ready to fly a plane into the building to kill him, if I could."

Mike Morris and James Pinkerton contributed to this report.

©2016 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.