Should Police Use Bombs To Kill Criminals?

In the wake of the two seemingly outrageous slayings of African American men by police in Minnesota and Louisiana and the equally heinous retaliatory killings of five police officers in Dallas by a black former Army Reservist, questions have been raised in all three cases about excessive police behavior.

Police surrogates on the cable TV networks were sent into a state of apoplexy that some security analysts, while the Dallas police department was still grieving, raised eyebrows about the use of an exploding bomb, delivered by a robot, to kill the Dallas shooter. Whether intentional or not, this argument was an attempt to use the legitimate grief of the police families to shield the department from a debate about the aggressive military tactics used to kill the shooter.

Using a robot normally used for explosive neutralization to offensively deliver a bomb is not just a further incremental militarization of the police, such as military-style uniforms and SWAT teams with military gear and equipment, including armored vehicles. The police use of exploding ordinance is a quantum escalation that has the potential to kill innocent bystanders and also to start fires that are difficult to control. Let’s remember when police in 1985 attempted to roust out the Move group by dropping a bomb from a helicopter on an urban neighborhood in Philadelphia, which started a fire that destroyed more than 60 homes in that city. The city blocks destroyed looked like something from a foreign war zone, but the manmade disaster happened in an American city.

In military operations, some "collateral damage" – that is killing or injuring civilians or destroying their property – is usually deemed tolerable if the military objective is important. In policing, where the end goal is supposed to be protecting citizens and property, the military’s at least theoretical attempt to achieve a greater objective, while minimizing damage to civilians, is not good enough.

The militarization of police forces across the country has also changed police culture, leading these forces to use more confrontational tactics – which now like American military attacks overseas – have led to "blowback." American-led Western military attacks in the Middle East have brought increased terrorist retaliation on Western, including U.S., targets – for example, the ISIS terror group did not focus its attacks on European and American targets until the U.S.-led air attacks began on the group in July 2014. Similarly, perceived aggressive police tactics against African Americans domestically have led, for example, to riots in Baltimore and the horrendous murder of the officers in Dallas. This cycle of violence needs to stop – both overseas and, most important, here at home.

Furthermore, in using a robot to deliver explosives, police can remain once removed from doing the dirty work of taking people’s lives, just as the military’s use of attack drones in faraway theaters removes the joy-stick operators in Nevada from the same. Both of these militarized tactics make it easier to kill, something that should not be encouraged, especially among police here at home.

But police surrogates vehemently respond that that is the whole point: more police lives would have been put in danger had the bomb not been used. However, the already too militarized police SWAT teams are supposed to have the protective equipment and non-explosive firepower to contain and kill the shooter, as they have done successfully around the country and world many times. Instead, using a bomb made of the same powerful explosive material, C-4, as was used in the Philadelphia incident, is an unacceptable escalation of police tactics that could endanger the wider community, as it did in that instance. Any added risk to professional police must weighed against the potential for a wider cataclysm. The Dallas police chief admitted that his only instruction was to avoid bringing the building down with the explosion, which is a low standard, given the potential for fires to spread, and argued that ethically, he had no problems with killing the suspect using a bomb. The ethics of killing an active shooter who has murdered police is not the issue; the question is whether the chief was endangering the public. Furthermore, there were still some innocent students in the building when the police exploded the device.

An even more important concern relates to what kind of country we want to be. The nation’s founders were suspicious of standing armies at home during peacetime because of their threat to citizens’ liberty. With the continued militarization of the country’s police forces, including the offensive use of bombs, we may be heading toward what the founders dreaded most.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.