An Explosive Decision: The Choice to Deploy a Bomb-Equipped Robot in Dallas
By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety
After a sniper shot 12 police officers, killing five, during a rally in downtown Dallas on July 7, Police Chief David Brown took unprecedented action. He sent in a police robot equipped with a bomb to kill the perpetrator. The agency used the robot after a five-hour standoff and negotiation effort with the shooter, which included multiple exchanges of gunfire.
“Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased as a result of detonating the bomb,” said Chief Brown during a news conference.
Equipping a robot with a bomb to kill a suspect was the first time police used such a tactic on U.S. soil, said Ray Walker, a 33-year law enforcement veteran who spent seven years as a certified bomb technician assigned to the Arson Explosives Detail for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He retired in 2012 and is currently a faculty member at American Military University teaching courses in criminal justice.
“This was very out-of-the-box thinking for a police agency,” Walker said. “It was definitely the first time police have ever used a robot for that type of tactical mission.”
While Walker was not involved in this incident, he did have some speculation about how the scenario played out. “It’s likely the Chief asked for a plan about how to attack this scenario. He knew there would be a shoot-out with officers and likely didn’t want to risk any more officers’ lives by sending them into fire,” he said. “I’m guessing someone in the room suggested they strap a bomb on a robot and send it in. The department decided to explore the idea and ultimately that’s what they decided to do.”
Using robotics is common in bomb squads. “When I went to bomb school, it was five weeks long. Now it’s six weeks. Now there’s an additional week just to learn about robots,” he said. Nearly all bomb squads now have robots and bomb squad technicians are trained how to effectively use them. Taking the measure to equip a robot with a bomb is something bomb technicians do often for different purposes, just not for this kind of tactic. However, there remains a lot of curiosity about the construction of the bomb.
Details about the device have yet to be released, even to those in the field. “No one knows anything about the bomb because the Dallas PD and the FBI haven’t debriefed it yet to bomb squads,” he said. “It’s still early, but I would be surprised if they don’t provide more information about it.”
This unique use of a robot has brought with it criticism. “Because it’s a military tactic being used in the civilian world, there are bound to be a bunch of people who don’t like it,” he said. “People will, and are, questioning the use of this tactic on the civilian population. I expect there will be a debate about the incident for quite a while.”
As a former SWAT team member, Walker said he was torn about the decision not to deploy SWAT. “Going into dangerous situations and facing gunfire is what SWAT members are trained to do,” he said. “But on the other hand, as a bomb technician, I thought it was an excellent idea to deploy the robot and it certainly eliminated the problem. The only guy who got hurt was the bad guy.”
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Walker also addressed the debate about whether or not the police spent enough time negotiating with the perpetrator. “While I can’t speak to exactly how much time was spent asking him to come out and negotiating with him, no police agency in the country is not going to ask him to give himself up. My guess is that they spent a considerable amount of effort trying to convince him this situation was not good for him, but in the end decided they needed to take action.”