In An Apparent First, Police Used A Robot To Kill

Police cars on Main Street in Dallas following the sniper shooting during a protest on Thursday.

Police cars on Main Street in Dallas following the sniper shooting during a protest on Thursday. Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images

After sniper fire struck 12 police officers at a rally in downtown Dallas, killing five, police cornered a single suspect in a parking garage. After a prolonged exchange of gunfire and a five-hour-long standoff, police made what experts say was an unprecedented decision: to send in a police robot, jury-rigged with a bomb.

“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 told a news conference Friday. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb.”

At a Friday evening press conference, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings revealed that police used a common plastic explosive known as C4.

“The same automated robot equipment used to defuse bombs was used to place C4 in place and to detonate that,” Rawlings said.

“This was a man that we gave plenty of options to to give himself up peacefully and we spent a lot of time talking. He had a choice to come out and we would not harm, or stay in and we would. He picked the latter.”

Robots have been part of police tactical equipment for years — used to surveil crime scenes, aide in hostage negotiations or defuse bombs — but this was a “unique use of equipment,” according to Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest U.S. law enforcement union.

“I think it’s the first time that’s been utilized,” Canterbury told NPR. “I know that SWAT teams around the country have been training for that scenario, especially with terroristic-type threats, where you know that the offenders do not plan to live through them.”

This, in fact, wasn’t the first time a police robot was rigged to do something it wasn’t originally designed to do — say, instead of defusing a bomb, to deliver a flash or smoke grenade to incapacitate a suspect, experts say. But it was apparently the first purposeful killing of a suspect using such a rig.

“Given how many police [departments] have robots and given how versatile they are and the various uses to which they’ve been put, including in hostage situations, I think we’ll find that there have been other examples of this,” says Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law who studies robotics and cyberlaw. “As far as I know, this is a first time that they’ve used a robot to intentionally kill someone.”

Peter Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, has studied technology and war since the mid-2000s. He says U.S. soldiers in Iraq have used similar robots to deliver explosives, arming them by duct-taping bombs to the device.

“This would be, to my awareness, the first time that we’ve seen police use a robotic system in this way,” Singer told NPR.

The decision to use the robot has drawn attention for its inventiveness in the face of a challenging and violent situation with few good options. But the incident has also led to calls for the drafting of clearer law enforcement policy about lethal or potentially lethal uses of robots.

Lots of robots

As with much law enforcement technology, robots joined the ranks of police and SWAT teams after a stint in the military.

Bomb robots — known formally as explosive ordnance disposal, or EOD, robots — made their debut in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. They didn’t become widely used by the U.S. until the 1990s, with two of the first models designed by iRobot, the same company that created the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner.

Bomb robots became widely used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to deal with improvised explosive devices.

As of 2015, 201 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies had bought at least one explosive ordnance disposal robot through the military’s 1033 program, according to data from the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency. That program distributes excess military equipment to police departments and other agencies across the country. Courtesy of Center for the Study of the Drone

Last year, the San Jose Police Department used one such robot — a Northrop Grumman Remotec Andros F6A — to deliver a phone and a pizza to an armed man on a freeway overpass, eventually talking him out of committing suicide.

Other EOD robots have been employed to open doors, provide audio and video feeds from inside standoff situations, set off tear gas or pepper spray and communicate with hostile suspects.

Exactly how many bomb detonation robots are being used by police around the country is unclear. The Pentagon’s 1033 program, which supplies military weapons and vehicles to law enforcement agencies across the country, distributed 479 EOD robots between 2006 and 2014, according to an NPR analysis.

According to a 2015 study by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department bought one EOD robot in 2014 for $10,000. The FBI Dallas Division that year purchased scores of robots at the same per-unit cost, according to the study.

There may be other robots not accounted for by the 1033 program. Northrop Grumman confirmed to Vice last year that more than 1,100 of its Remotec robots are distributed across the country, used in more than 90 percent of police bomb squads.

It’s unclear what kind of bomb robot was used in Dallas this week, though photographs suggest similarities to a Northrop Grumman product. The company declined to comment.

When is it time to worry?

As robots have become an integral part of emergency situation response — think mine collapses, oil spills, natural disaster relief — Calo, the researcher, says he wasn’t surprised to hear of a tactical robot featuring in the Dallas incident.

And he raises an interesting question: Would the police response have garnered as much attention if they had used a more traditional means of killing a violent suspect?

Calo says the time to get nervous about police use of robots isn’t in extreme, anomalous situations with few good options like Dallas, but if their use should become routine.

“I think we get worried when robots start to get used in traffic stops, or stops on the street, when we start to put nonlethal weapons on drones so that the officer doesn’t even need to approach the individual,” Calo says. “Before that, I just think we should have a policy so that officers know what they can and can’t do.”

The effort to develop clear policies may result in a patchwork of local regulations similar to those for drones and body cameras, says Elizabeth Joh, law professor at the University of California, Davis. Plus, she says, it raises new questions about when lethal force is justified or deemed excessive in the world of remote-controlled robots.

ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley says as a legal matter, “the choice of weapon in a decision to use lethal force does not change the constitutional calculus,” though robots make it easier to apply deadly force, raising concerns of overuse.

“This was a makeshift response to an ongoing emergency,” says Joh, “but we shouldn’t be surprised if police departments that are watching this situation decide they want to be proactive and have such a robot at hand should a similar crisis arise,” she says. “The question going forward is, ‘Should this be used again, and when?’ “

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The Making Of A Propaganda Film In 'Under The Sun'

Under The Sun

Under The Sun Icarus Films hide caption

toggle caption Icarus Films

She’s only eight years old, but Zin-Mi knows a lot about her homeland. It is, she says, “the land of the rising sun” and “the most beautiful country.” Of course, North Korea is the only place Zin-Mi has ever seen, and the only place she’s ever likely to see.

Shot during two visits over a year, Under the Sun chronicles Zin-Mi’s preparations to become a member of the Children’s Union, a group in the tradition of the USSR’s Young Pioneers. The uniformed tykes wear red scarves, and present red flowers to dignitaries weighed down by medals that cover their jackets. The kids also listen to endless lessons, presented by both young schoolteachers and elderly war veterans, about how the Kim dynasty defeated Japanese imperialists and American “cowards.”

At first, Russian director Vitaly Mansky presents Zin-Mi and her equally earnest parents without comment. But then, during a family dinner, the filmmaker offers multiple takes of the scene. He shows the men who interrupt to coach the three players on their performances and tell them just what to say about the virtues of kimchi: It prevents cancer and enhances longevity, the handlers insist, and the girl and her parents dutifully repeat those claims.

Under the Sun is a documentary about the making of a “documentary” — a government-sanctioned propaganda film in which ordinary North Koreans play fictional roles. Mansky doesn’t explain what he originally agreed to do or exactly how he wound up making something quite different. But he does include an occasional on-screen note about some of the North Korean subterfuge.

The parents, for example, are both shown to labor in exemplary factories where, in fact, they don’t work. In reality, Dad is a “print journalist,” which may mean his job is at the same propaganda agency that chaperoned the film.

Without explanation, North Korean authorities cancelled the project before shooting was complete. So Mansky felt free to use the existing footage for a film about the country’s unbeautifulness. He divulges not only the backstage machinations, but also moments in which Zin-Mi — the exemplary Children’s Union member — is confused, doubtful, or frustrated. Prompted by an off-screen overseer to look more cheerful by thinking of “something good,” the girl falters. “I don’t know what,” she says. The simplest emotional cues are problematic when everything is scripted.

Under the Sun presents a society in which nothing is natural, and where depictions of Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors are as ubiquitous as images of Jesus in a medieval cathedral.

But the movie would have been more interesting if Mansky had included more of the back story. The filmmakers were required to submit their memory cards every day, and North Korean censors deleted any scene they didn’t want used. What they didn’t know was that the crew was backing up all the footage on a second set of cards so they could retain the moments the authorities thought were erased.

Also missing is the director’s intriguing motivation. At a screening of the film at AFI Docs in Washington, Mansky said he initially thought the project would be “a time machine” to the Soviet Union’s Stalinist era, and thus a means to better understand his country’s history. But he came to believe that North Korea is “much more hard and cruel” than the USSR ever was.

Under the Sun doesn’t document purges, prisons, and show trials. It displays only the wall that’s been erected to block the view of any such brutalities. But that’s enough.

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U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown And Staffer Indicted On Federal Fraud Charges

Rep. Corrine Brown, pictured last year, has been indicted on federal fraud and conspiracy charges for what prosecutors call a scheme to misuse funds raised for a charitable organization.

Rep. Corrine Brown, pictured last year, has been indicted on federal fraud and conspiracy charges for what prosecutors call a scheme to misuse funds raised for a charitable organization. Mark Wallheiser/AP hide caption

toggle caption Mark Wallheiser/AP

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., and her chief of staff, Elias “Ronnie” Simmons, are facing multiple counts of fraud and other charges related to an educational charity tied to the congresswoman, according to a federal indictment.

Federal prosecutors allege Brown, 69, and Simmons, 50, misled donors while soliciting donations for One Door for Education, under the guise of funding scholarships for minority students, raising more than $800,000.

Instead, as NPR’s Greg Allen reports for our Newscast Unit, “prosecutors say Brown, Simmons and Carla Wiley, the head of the charity, diverted the funds to their own accounts.”

Of all the money raised, the 24-count indictment states, only $1,200 was awarded as scholarships. Greg goes on to say a large portion went onto underwriting lavish events:

“As part of their fundraising, prosecutors say Brown, Simmons and Wiley spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on events including a golf tournament in Ponte Vedra, Fla., and the use of luxury boxes for an NFL game and a Beyoncé concert.”

Wiley pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, The Associated Press reports.

Brown and Simmons are also charged in failing to disclose deposits and payments they received from One Door for Education on tax returns

Furthermore, Brown is accused of falsifying tax deductions on returns from 2008 to 2014, claiming donations to One Door for Education as well as churches and non-profits which prosecutors say were never made. Simmons is accused of misusing his position as Brown’s chief of staff, hiring a close relative, then diverting $80,000 of the relative’s salary for his personal benefit.

Brown has served as a congresswoman for the Jacksonville area since 1993, during which Simmons worked as her chief of staff. Brown is currently seeking re-election.

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Dallas Has Been Called A Leader In Police Training, Transparency

Dallas police officers stand guard at a road block to the crime scene at El Centro College where a sniper unleashed a barrage of bullets, killing 5 police officers and wounding 7 others.

Dallas police officers stand guard at a road block to the crime scene at El Centro College where a sniper unleashed a barrage of bullets, killing 5 police officers and wounding 7 others. Marcus Yam/LA Times via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Marcus Yam/LA Times via Getty Images

The morning after a gunman targeted and killed five law enforcement officers, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called it “ironic” that his city was the target of the worst police loss-of-life since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ironic because the police department says it has taken great strides to avoid the kind of confrontations and incidents that have led to distrust and frayed race relations in some communities. “This police department trained in de-escalation far before cities across America did it,” Rawlings told reporters Friday. “We are one of the premier community policing cities in the country.”

According to data from the Dallas Police Department, the number of complaints alleging excessive and improper use of force has fallen from 147 in 2009 to 13 through mid-November of 2015.

Even more dramatically, the department reports that the number of shootings involving police went from 23 in 2012 to just one this year (before last night).

There appear to be two reasons for the decline: training and transparency.

Dallas Police training now emphasizes de-escalation, rather than confrontation. Video on the Dallas Morning News website shows so-called “real-life” training: staged scenarios which officers might encounter in the field such as a man waving a weapon.

In the video, Dallas Police Chief David Brown says, “Slowing down, waiting for cover, de-escalating situations we hope will become the new normal for policing in Dallas where we can give ourselves a chance to survive a deadly force confrontation with more cover.”

The department has also increased the number of body and dashboard cameras recording police actions. The reasoning is that is likely to cause officers to think about their actions.

But there are important caveats to the department’s data, too. There has been no study done showing that the increased training and monitoring has caused the decrease in Dallas police violence, only the correlation.

And it’s important to point out that, from 2010 through 2014, Dallas had one of the highest rates of killings by police in the country, when adjusted for population (2.7 per 100,000 residents). That data was published by the Better Government Association, an Illinois watchdog group focusing on Chicago, which had the highest total number of killings during that same period—70.

Even so, very few U.S. police departments have matched Dallas. The White House and the Justice Department praise the Dallas police for being one of 53 jurisdictions participating in the Police Data Initiative, “a community of practice that includes leading law enforcement agencies, technologists, and researchers committed to improving the relationship between citizens and police through uses of data that increase transparency, build community trust, and strengthen accountability.”

The Dallas Police website has comprehensive data available to the public, that enables anyone to see how an incident was resolved, what weapon was used, where it happened, even a narrative of each shooting.

Although the suspect in Thursday night’s attack told police he was targeting “white people,” experts say it’s unclear whether he was really targeting the Dallas police in particular.

Norman Stamper, a former Seattle Police Chief who is now writing about police reform, said the attack could have been anywhere a lot of people—and a lot of cops— were gathered. “He (the shooter) found a large gathering and shot as many people as he could. That’s what mass shooters do.”

Editor’s Note: The original data source contained broken links to incident reports. (Download our cleaned version of the data.)

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In Dallas, Fear That 'Love And Understanding Will Never Win'

Protestors react as police officers arrest a bystander in downtown Dallas following Thursday's shooting.

Protestors react as police officers arrest a bystander in downtown Dallas following Thursday’s shooting. Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images

We’re still waiting for the full picture of what happened in Dallas, Texas — and in Baton Rouge, La., and in Falcon Ridge, Minn., for that matter — to emerge. But what we know so far is this: In Dallas Thursday night, hundreds of people gathered for what had been a peaceful protest over the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, two black men who were killed by police officers earlier in the week.

Demonstration in #Dallas pic.twitter.com/Wpd5VbvsR5

— Dallas Police Depart (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016

As the demonstration was winding down, shots were fired at Dallas police officers who were monitoring the march. Five officers were killed, and seven more were wounded. Two civilians were also injured.

The shooter has been identified as Micah Xavier Johnson, a 25 year-old African-American military veteran. At morning press conference, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said that the shooter was killed by a police “bomb robot,” but had told the police hostage negotiator that he “was upset about Black Lives Matter” and that he “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” According to Brown, Johnson also said he “was not affiliated with any groups and that he did this alone.” Brown was passionate in his call for unity:

“We’re hurting. Our profession is hurting. Dallas officers are hurting. We are heart-broken. There are no words to describe the atrocity that occurred to our city. All I know is that this, this most stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens…

For more coverage on Dallas, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, follow The Two-Way, where NPR covers breaking news, and Code Switch. To contribute to our reporting, click here.

I spoke with the families of the deceased and the injured. They are not having a good time trying to deal, absorb this. Trying to understand why. And they need your prayers. So please, join us in helping us comfort the grieving officers’ families. And I’ll trust that soon, because we’re working very diligently and processing the crime scene to find evidence to bring any of the suspects to justice that were a part of this. But please pray for our strength through this trying time. Thank you.”

Here’s some of what we’re seeing from other folks who are from or who live in Dallas:

“I’m scared for my life,” Zignat Abdisubhan, a 27-year-old who lives in Garland, a suburb of Dallas, wrote to Code Switch in an email. She identifies as a first-generation African-American Muslim woman. “I’m scared to protest. I’m scared for my future sons. I’m scared that this divide between the so-called ‘sides’ in this police brutality debate will be ever deepened. You can be pro-BLM and pro-police. That’s a thing. I’m scared that it will always be us vs them after this. I’m scared that love and understanding will never win.”

We also heard from Joe Jones, a 35-year-old Atlanta native who moved to Dallas three years ago. Jones, who’s African-American, was a pastor for seven years. He told us over Skype that — prior to the Dallas shootings — he’d seen a tonal shift in the way his friends and acquaintances talk about race and policing.

“I think that Philando Castile in particular — it was so personal in a way that people who were in the middle, specifically white people, could feel and empathize in a way that I had never seen before,” Jones said, citing the fact that Castile was in the car with his girlfriend and her daughter, and that Castile was carrying permit for his gun. “Folks who I had never seen sympathize with a young black man who had been shot by a cop were able to say for the first time, ‘I can see myself in that position. I know that he did the thing that was expected of him to do,’ and they reacted by starting to think about and question whether or not there was an issue.”

Jones said that that there’s a false binary between folks who condemn police violence against black Americans, and those who support police officers. “The people on both sides are still in a grieving place where pain is a unifier.”

On social media, folks expressed a full range of reactions. A Twitter user in Dallas seemed to share Jones’ perspective, that pain sometimes unifies:

This is just tragic. For EVERYONE. I’m honestly at a loss for words on this one. #DallasPoliceShootings

— Brandon R. Gibson (@graisinbrand) July 8, 2016

Others seemed overwhelmed:

My city is going nuts. I would have never imagined that #Dallas would show out like this. #DallasPoliceShootings #Message #PrayForAmerica

— ~Hiatus~ (@_eiknujcisum_) July 8, 2016

One woman from Dallas wrote that her “heart goes out to the city [she] grew up in,” and that she’s unsure of how to respond to everything that’s been happening. She added:

#PoliceLivesMatter was never in jeopardy. Police lives have always mattered. That’s why in police brutality cases they are not convicted.

— maggie (@char_mag) July 8, 2016

Please don’t let this overshadow the larger issue, #blacklivesmatter and we need to start holding law enforcement to a higher standard.

— maggie (@char_mag) July 8, 2016

We’ll continue updating this post as we hear more stories. Tweet at us @NPRCodeSwitch or email us at codeswitch@npr.org to share yours.

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