Getty/Stewart F. House

Are we entering the era of killer police robots?

The Dallas Police Department’s decision to deploy a “bomb robot” to kill a suspect in the shooting that left five police officers dead has sparked serious questions about the use of remote-controlled lethal force by law enforcement. In a Friday press conference, Dallas’s police chief David Brown justified its use as a measure of last resort, after a prolonged standoff devolved into a shootout.

This is the first known case of law enforcement using a robot to kill a human being in the United States. What many are calling a “bomb robot” may have been an improvisation of a robot designed for bomb disposal, which only carries charges to detonate other bombs. The Dallas Police Department blogged in May of this year about acquiring new robots, which they previously used to detonate bombs planted by a gunman targeting police headquarters.

As NPR reported in 2014, the Pentagon distributed nearly 500 bomb detonator robots to domestic law enforcement agencies. Some find relief in the fact that these are not automated robots, arguing that human control over the trigger means more careful decision-making. But in the absence of laws governing when and how domestic police can deploy military-grade weaponry against civilians, police are in essence empowered to execute suspects without trial. This ability to kill at a distance also raises a host of other problems—the likelihood of misreading murky situations, the risk of harm to innocent bystanders, and the incentive for police to rely more heavily on remote-controlled weaponry in tense situations. The alarming precedent set by Dallas police highlights the need for better governance over lethal technologies that are now ubiquitous but largely unregulated.