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Dallas police don’t want to release bomb robot data, claim information is ’embarrassing’

When the Dallas police used a bomb robot to kill a suspect who had shot and killed five police officers and wounding nine others, it set a controversial precedent that raised questions about the procedures and practices the police had followed to determine whether to use a remote detonation explosive. Multiple journalists filed Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about the police’s decision-making process.

Now, the DPD has responded to these requests by lumping 17 distinct filings together and asking the Texas attorney general to allow it to withhold information on the grounds that the data is “embarrassing” and “of no legitimate concern to the public.”

Vice has more details on the requests, since one of their own filings has been added to the compilation. It should be noted that embarrassment is explicitly not a reason to withhold information from the public, according to the guidelines published on the Department of Justice’s website, which state that information should not be withheld merely because “public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”

The problem with handling the situation the way the DPD has done, as Vice discusses, is that it lumps together 17 disparate requests for information on the situation and treats them equivalently. Vice asked for video footage from body cams and the robot itself. A different reporter asked for documentation on the robot and documents concerning the aftermath of the explosion. One journalist asked about the security of the link between the robot control center and the robot itself. These are very different requests with very different targets, and the DPD is trying to prevent them all with a blanket “Well, it could be embarrassing to reveal this information” excuse.

As our own Graham Templeton noted in his write-up of the detonation:

Even as more and more police departments acquire drones and other military-like technologies, the different legal powers available to the cops, as well as their distinct mission statement, should keep those technologies from being used in the ways we currently see around the world: to eliminate dangerous suspects rather than neutralize them. So the question is pressing: Did this constitute a breach of due process? Were the cops using this drone the way a soldier might, without thinking about whether that was the appropriate thing to do?

This is an important point we can’t lose sight of. Whether the police acted appropriately when they used an improvised explosive to kill Micah Xavier Johnson, and what the process of approving such action should or shouldn’t look like, is something the US needs to confront. Rules and regulations governing the use of force are critical to the preservation of the rule of law and public confidence in policing. Given that the latter has taken something of a beating over the past two years, it’s all the more important to understand how this decision was reached and what safeguards or considerations should be in place to govern the use of drones and lethal force in the future.

Stifling that conversation by lumping 17 FOIA requests together and attempting to dismiss them due to “embarrassment” is a mistake — one that would prevent appropriate consideration of the chain of events that led to the bomb robot being deployed.

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