Dallas PD Asks Attorney General For Permission To Withhold 'Embarrassing' Documents About Its Bomb Robot

from the or-are-the-records-'highly-intimate?' dept

The unprecedented deployment of a bomb-defusing robot by Dallas police to kill an armed suspect raised several questions. While these robots have sometimes acted as part of a negotiation team in the past, no police department had previously rigged one up with an explosive device to take a suspect out.

One question that remains unanswered is whether this use of the Dallas PD’s robot violated its own policies. Gawker’s Andy Cush filed a public records request for PD policies on using robots to kill and discovered Dallas law enforcement was basically making things up as it went along.

Gawker filed a request with the department under the Texas Public Information Act seeking any departmental doctrine for using a bomb-carrying robot against a suspect, including but not limited to the use of the Remotec model. Last week, the department responded via email that “A search was made within the Dallas Police Department by the respective Divisions(s) for this information and no records were found.” (Emphasis theirs.)

Debra Webb, a public information officer with the DPD, told Gawker that based on the verbiage of the response, it is safe to assume that no records outlining departmental doctrine for the use of bomb-carrying robots against suspects exist. The apparent lack of any written plans would seem to confirm that officers on the ground came up with the killer robot strategy on the fly, as several experts suggested to the Intercept several days after the shootings.

Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox of Motherboard are seeking more answers about this incident — one that could be used as a blueprint (albeit one without its own policy blueprint) for similar situations faced by other law enforcement agencies.

The Dallas PD does have several records pertaining to the incident but it’s not interested in releasing them.

I formally asked the Dallas police department for body camera footage taken by police and onboard footage taken by the robot of the operation. Motherboard reporter Joseph Cox asked for communications that took place in the aftermath of the event, as well as documents about the purchase of the robot.

The police admitted in a response to me that it does have these videos, but told me in a letter that “all or part of the requested information may not be disclosed at this time.” The Dallas Police Department sent a separate letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking him to exempt large parts of my request and the requests of 16 other journalists from “mandatory disclosure.”

Whether Paxton will grant this blanket exception remains to be seen. But past events show he’s amenable to covering up records that might be embarrassing or show local law enforcement agencies operating at less than peak efficiency. At least in this case, he won’t be put in the position of representing the public and the agency suing him when the public records litigation begins.

The problem with this request for a blanket exception covering these records is that the Dallas Police has, rather disingenuously, lumped public records from 17 different journalists into one big ball of presumptive nondisclosure.

Each of these journalists has requested different things, and each of them should require a separate legal review.

For example, one journalist asked for information about the network security of the link between the police’s robot control center and the robot itself—an interesting request, but one that has both future safety implications and nothing at all to do with Motherboard’s requests.

Furthermore, as Jason Koebler points out, the Dallas PD thinks it should be allowed to withhold documents simply because it might look bad if anyone else but law enforcement officials viewed them.

The Dallas Police Department tells the attorney general that some of the information requested could be “embarrassing” and subject to redaction under a “common law privacy” act, but does not state (at least in the part of the letter it released) which part of which request it believes could result in embarrassing records being released.

Sorry, public officials, but potential embarrassment is not a legitimate reason to withhold public records. The “common law privacy” cited by the PD suggests the info would also have to be “highly intimate” and, more importantly, “of no public interest” to justify withholding under this exemption.

This preemptive move by the Dallas PD — one that treats multiple requests seeking different documents as an indivisible whole — appears to be its way of throwing several wrenches into the public records machinery. Koebler reports the PD is asking as many questions as it can in hopes of creating a confusing mess out of multiple straightforward information requests — even stupid things like whether or not it can redact credit card numbers.

What it’s really asking of attorney general Ken Paxton is how long it can get away with not complying with requests. Should Paxton fail to grant it the secrecy it seeks, the next move will likely be a blend of over-redaction and increased fulfillment fees.

Granted, officers on the scene were less concerned with the generation of “embarrassing ” public records than they were with neutralizing a hostile threat, but once the decision had been made to repurpose a bomb disposal robot into a killing machine, those up top knew the records requests would come rolling in. Dallas PD officials may not have had any policies in place for wiring up robots to kill, but they already have plenty of strategies on hand for fending off journalists and their records requests.

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Comments on “Dallas PD Asks Attorney General For Permission To Withhold 'Embarrassing' Documents About Its Bomb Robot”

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31 Comments
Anonymoussays:

Re: "afraid for their lives"

Police work is far too dangerous to use anything less than overwhelming deadly force.

“Officer safety” was the reason they used the robot instead of sending in a SWAT team. They feared even their specially trained and heavily equipped SWAT team was not up to the task, so they sent an expendable robot instead.

TasMotsays:

OK, I can understand a desire to terminate the situation as soon as possible. However; why couldn’t they load up the robot with tear gas or sleeping gas instead of a bomb. This might inconvenience anyone nearby that got a dose of gas, but at least then nobody gets dead and there is a WHOLE LOT less explaining to do.

I guess the new police as military troops need to kill not capture the enemy (I mean suspect).

Anonymoussays:

Re:

However; why couldn’t they load up the robot with tear gas or sleeping gas instead of a bomb

They likely didn’t go with “less-lethal” methods for the same reasons they didn’t try tranquilizing Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Chemical solutions can fail to work, work unpredictably, or have unforeseen impacts on individuals based on a wide variety of factors, including drug use, emotional state, physiology, medical conditions, physical conditioning, etc.

Your “sleeping gas” might knock the individual out. Or it might disorient them sufficiently to come out shooting. Or it might dissipate before having the intended effect, leaving you with a conscious shooter where you’re expecting them to be unconscious.

You get similar mixed results with pepper spray/mace which may not work if the person is intoxicated, hysterical, or otherwise in a heightened emotional state.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re:

They likely didn’t go with “less-lethal” methods for the same reasons they didn’t try tranquilizing Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo.

To be clear, this was a person, not a gorilla.

Chemical solutions can fail to work, work unpredictably, or have unforeseen impacts on individuals based on a wide variety of factors, including drug use, emotional state, physiology, medical conditions, physical conditioning, etc.

Your “sleeping gas” might knock the individual out. Or it might disorient them sufficiently to come out shooting. Or it might dissipate before having the intended effect, leaving you with a conscious shooter where you’re expecting them to be unconscious.

You get similar mixed results with pepper spray/mace which may not work if the person is intoxicated, hysterical, or otherwise in a heightened emotional state.

Funny how you never even consider the possibility of say, in addition to the gas, you could mount this newfangled thingy called a camera to the robot as well…this incredible invention is capable of taking these things called “pictures” (a series of which can be assembled into something called “video”) that they could use to ascertain the effectiveness of the gas deployed.

Let’s face it – they decided to play judge, jury, and executioner themselves. And if you’re OK with that, I’d say be careful what you wish for.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re:

Yes, it was a person.

Doesn’t change the fact that people react in unpredictable ways to having chemical agents introduced into their bodies. A camera would tell you if he was incapacitated – maybe. Assuming it could see thru whatever fog the chemical agent introduced. And, sure. they make cameras that operate outside of visible wavelengths. FLIR, etc. and maybe they had them readily available, or not.

Far too many people believe what they see on TV, which is where it sounded like the OP was coming from. Shoot with dart, instant sleep. introduce gas, instant unconsciousness. Teargas? 100% effective. Chemical agents don’t work that way in real life.

Introduce a chemical agent into that mix, and what’s going to happen is that he’ll come out shooting, greatly increasing the odds that more people than the perp will die.

As far as me being ok with them killing him? I never said that. And as it happens I’m not ok with it.

That said, I am a realist. And the realist in me recognizes that he was a dead man the second they cornered him.

Anonymoussays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Doesn’t change the fact that people react in unpredictable ways to having chemical agents introduced into their bodies. A camera would tell you if he was incapacitated – maybe. Assuming it could see thru whatever fog the chemical agent introduced. And, sure. they make cameras that operate outside of visible wavelengths. FLIR, etc. and maybe they had them readily available, or not.

Availability issues? That’s just a pathetic excuse.

I’m sure along with not being able to figure out how to get a camera in a relatively timely fashion, they never considered to, I don’t know, wait him out?

Where exactly was he going to go?

They fucked up with this heavy-handed response. Realist or not, this is NOT how police are supposed to behave.

TasMotsays:

Re: Re:

I threw out a suggestion as part of a conversation. My point was that their chosen option of “boom, your dead” is not supposed to be an acceptable choice in the United States. It rings of the approach of “Judge Dredd” days approaching.

What other suggestions do you have other than “boom, your dead” option they chose. Something less lethal is what I had in mind. A military response is not supposed to be the first choice. Negotiations or wait him out (no food, no sleep will eventually make him slow and stupid).

Maybe even send in a big box of flash-bangs to blind and deafen him before sending in the “troops” would work.

He was cornered and contained by a large force of police. Where was he going to go, what was he going to do.

The bomb on a robot was a stupid and embarrassing idea and the police are no longer on that slippery slope, they are running as fast as they can down the hill into dangerous territory with no stop in sight.

OK, so sleeping gas may not be it, but what have you got?

Salsays:

Re: Cops wanted Revenge

…this bad-guy had just killed some Dallas cops — and the Dallas PD really wanted him dead ASAP, for revenge.
Very simple cop drama.

The bad-guy was already badly wounded and cornered in a parking garage– with no chance of escape and no real threat to the hordes of cops who cornered him there — they would have cut him down instantly if he moved.

The cops had many options (including tear gas) and lots of time to wait him out or let him bleed to death — but that would not satisfy their burning hunger for fast bloody revenge.

The robot/bomb idea was totally unnecessary and totally indefensible. The DPD knows that and is trying to conceal their crime– but they got their revenge… and will get away with it with a mere wrist slap when the full truth ultimately gets public exposure.

Davidsays:

Re: Re: Cops wanted Revenge

…this bad-guy had just killed some Dallas cops — and the Dallas PD really wanted him dead ASAP, for revenge.

Would you rather have them get it out of their system on this guy or on some sap with broken tail light at the next traffic stop?

Other options? Where do you think you are? Switzerland?

Uriel-238says:

""have them get it out of their system on this guy"

People who have to get it out of their system are not professional enough to be law enforcement officers.

Or, for that matter, responsible enough to drive a motor vehicle on public streets.

Rational conduct in the face of crisis is expected of every adult US citizen. Why should law enforcement officers with the power of authority and physical force be exempt?

John Fendersonsays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Cops wanted Revenge

It doesn’t matter what he wants. What matters is what is in the best interest of the public.

There is an extremely good reason why the police are not supposed to be the ones that determine guilt or innocence, nor are they the ones who are supposed to decide who gets punished for what, and what sort of punishment it will be.

The police are supposed to investigate crime and bring suspects into court, not to assassinate people, no matter how awful those people may be.

Anonymoussays:

Well, DPD has learned something after all...

They’ve been honest about why they don’t want the film released – it’s embarrassing. DPD didn’t use the historical go-to’s of “terrorists”, “confidential police methods”, “investigative material”, etc. in terms of why they want to withhold it.

Is it sad that the honesty is actually a little refreshing?

Anonymoussays:

Lack of forethought

Really the thing about the bomb robot that is the most disturbing was that they did it without any thought to damage to future uses in standoffs and negotiations. That will end up costing lives. Using an ordinance bot to bringing a phone or well anything – to open a line of communication in a hostage standoff is likely to be mistaken for an aggressive act.

jraamasays:

Unintended concequenses

In executing this plan, the Dallas PD may have made many other police officers less safe when confronted by a similar situation. Going forward, any PD that deploys a robot to gather information, deliver a phone/food/drink or involve itself in any tense situation with an armed individual may well find that individual, rightly fearing being blown up, reacting very badly.
It was a short-sighted solution to a controlled problem.

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