Police Don't Overreact to Strange Object

It’s nice to post a positive story once in a while:

Is it a bird? Is it a bomb? No, it’s the missing ‘bot.

A robot dubbed Seahorse 1, which was stolen days before an international contest, has turned up in a field off Interstate 45 in Dallas.

“Somebody was mowing his grandmother’s yard and thought it was a bomb,” said Nathan Huntoon, an engineering grad student and member of SMU’s robotics team.

The police were delivering the missing machine to SMU Monday afternoon. “We don’t know yet if it’s in working condition,” Mr. Huntoon said.

Sad that this feels like an exception.

Posted on July 11, 2007 at 6:20 AM25 Comments


J.D. Abolins July 11, 2007 7:26 AM

From the Dallas Morning News story on the matter, it is highly likely that the theft of the robot had been reported to the police and the info was available to the officers responsing to the call about the strange object in the field. According to the report, the vehicle from which robot had been stolen was jimmied open, implying a likely reporting of the theft to the police.

So the police might not have been “surprised” by a strange item and as prone to assume an explosive or other dangerous device. It seems that with some “bomb scare” incidents, the lack of information about an unusual looking item has been a factor.

Yosi July 11, 2007 7:56 AM

You know, Bruce, there are some places in the world, where police is obligated to treat each suspicious object as a bomb. And nobody thinks it’s funny. And you know, WHY?
Because some time it is a bomb.
Welcome to Israel.

Sez Me July 11, 2007 8:07 AM

It’s CYA. They know if they treat it as a bomb and its not, it will be forgotten. But if they treat it like it’s not a bomb and it is happens to be the one in a million that is, the powers-that-be (with their 20/20 hindsight) will have their heads.

C Gomez July 11, 2007 8:23 AM

Yeah, I’m not convinced at all that this is an exception. I think it only seems like an exception when looking through the veiled filter of the news (if it’s not sensational, it doesn’t make news), and one’s own tendency to look for “bad security” stories.

Chip July 11, 2007 9:15 AM

Maybe it was that the PRESS didn’t overreact. I certainly hope the police at least took the precaution to consider that it might be a bomb.

Ian Ringrose July 11, 2007 9:16 AM

I think the key words are “in a field”, e.g. there is not a great risk of it being a bomb, as there is not match in the field to be damaged by a bomb.

avery July 11, 2007 9:28 AM

The problem with, “sometimes it is a bomb” is that, based on history, parked cars, mail boxes and trash cans should be of primary concern. Complex gizmos with blinky lights, not so much.

If Israel is detonating every parked car, maybe they need to rethink some things.

Roy July 11, 2007 9:44 AM


What matters is prevalence. When bombs are common, worry about bombs. When they’re not, don’t worry about bombs.

It makes sense to think ‘bomb’ at every puzzle in Israel, because bombs are so common there, but think of how stupid that would be in Greenland.

Mike July 11, 2007 10:00 AM

“Somebody was mowing his grandmother’s yard and thought it was a bomb.”

See the picture of it here:


That is so not even close to a ‘bomb’.

Looks like the US has been able to keep everyone fearing for their lives.

And even if it did look ‘suspicious’ bomb attacks are rare, and bomb attacks on your grandmothers front yard are even rarer.

Also, don’t leave $3000 robots in your car, especially if you have a competition coming up soon!

Joseph July 11, 2007 10:08 AM


I think Bruce’s point is that initially treating each suspicious item as a possible bomb is a good idea. Overreacting and shutting down interstate freeways is a bad idea. In Israel, you treat everything as a bomb, but you also don’t overreact and blow every incident out of proportion.

merkelcellcancer July 11, 2007 10:44 AM

If it is something that someone can not explain or understand it must be a “bomb.” Glad to hear that police did not blow it up.

Bruce Schneier July 11, 2007 11:49 AM

“You know, Bruce, there are some places in the world, where police is obligated to treat each suspicious object as a bomb. And nobody thinks it’s funny. And you know, WHY? Because some time it is a bomb. Welcome to Israel.”

I know this; don’t think I don’t. Israel is different than the U.S. Were I writing about Israel, I would be saying different things.

guvn'r July 11, 2007 12:21 PM

@sez me, the first responders are probably less concerned about the powers that be having their heads than losing them when the device they assumed safe turned out to be explosive.

@j.d. abolins, the intent of stealing a robot could easily be for use as a delivery system, so assuming safety because the strange object can be identified would be unwise. Having it abandoned in a field seems less threatening, but the perps would know it will draw police investigation (especially since they know it’s stolen property), thus booby trapping it would be a great way to run a Darwinian selection exercise against law enforcement personnel…

Sez Me July 11, 2007 12:56 PM


Definitely, with the first responders. The people that make decisions yet aren’t on the battlefield, so to speak, are likely to cover themselves.

Dom De Vitto July 11, 2007 1:11 PM

“Number Five is Alive! Hey, hellooooo sexy bomb disposal robot! Fancy a good time? Hang on… …what’s with the 12-gauge? Boom!”

Cam Soper July 11, 2007 2:29 PM

Hey Bruce, I submitted this URL to Fark.com with the headline “Dallas police find strange object in field and choose not to overreact. Boston institutes martial law.”

It made the front page! 🙂

(For the uninitiated: Fark.com is a social news site where users submit links, often adding humorous headlines…)

Roxanne July 12, 2007 5:38 AM

The thing is, to the police, this was actually an object which A) Had been reported stolen; B) They were probably actively looking for; and thus C) It was not an “Unknown object.”

The people who found it thought it might be suspicious; the police knew exactly what it was, and who was looking for it, and thus didn’t panic.

Anonymous July 12, 2007 7:29 AM

Well, Roxanne, here’s the deal: once the police lost control of the object, it is as unknown to them as it would be to the person who reported it. Simply assuming it is OK because they lost one is just as stupid as assuming randomly reported objects are bombs.

In other words, the cops want that cake.

Anonymous July 13, 2007 10:30 PM

“Sad that this feels like an exception.”

The only exceptional part is that it got reported. Like any other working stiffs, police do sensible, useful things tens of thousands of times per day, but that makes for dull reporting. Screw up once, and you get the front page.

The only reason this story made it into the papers was that it involved a robot, which qualifies it under the “oddball news” category.

Che July 20, 2007 1:22 PM

Bruce forgot one of his own lessons. Things only appear on the news when its news! A ‘non-bomb’ is rarely news. The cops are rarely going to report to news reporters ‘yeah we saw an odd object, but realized it wasn’t a bomb.’

I’m sure things ‘like’ this happen regularly, but aren’t interesting enough to report.

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