Vancouver police have a new crowd control device capable of emitting painfully loud blasts of sound, just in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics, CBC News has learned. The Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) can use sound as a weapon, emitting tones that cross the human threshold of pain and are potentially damaging to hearing. But it is also designed as a communications device that's clearly audible up to 1,000 metres away.
Const. Lindsay Houghton said the device was first tested this summer as a public address system during the Celebration of Light fireworks events in Vancouver.
Houghton said police don't plan to use the device for anything more than communication. "The primary function we're using the device for is its ability to communicate with very large groups with respect to crowd control, evacuations, tactical situations where we may need the loudspeaker portion of it," he said.
The device, labelled as non-lethal, was designed for the American military and was first used publicly in North America in September as police in Pittsburgh tried to control anti-G20 demonstrators. The device, which weighs about 40 kilograms, can be mounted on top of a vehicle. It is reported to be capable of emitting a blast of directional sound measuring an estimated 150 decibels at one metre away and an estimated 90 decibels at 300 metres.
Sound above the range of 120 to 140 decibels is considered painful and damaging to human hearing. The device has reportedly been used in ship defence systems to repel would-be pirates, by the U.S. military to drive away insurgents in Iraq and by Japanese whaling ships to drive away protesters. But police in Vancouver have no plans to use the sonic weapon feature of the device, said Houghton."We have no plans to look at that portion of the device. It was looked at solely for its effectiveness at delivering a message to a large number of people," said Houghton.
It should go without saying that if the cops had simply wanted a new public address system, they'd have bought one that wasn't weaponised. And the ethics behind testing an undeclared weaponised loudspeaker at a public event are questionable at the very minimum. My conspiratorial guess is the fireworks show gave the police an live crowd event where they could test the deployment and operation of the device in a relative safe "walk through" scenario where they could plausibly hide their intent. Described another way, unknown to the public, the police levelled a weapon against them, but kept the safety on. I don't know about you, but I certainly wouldn't have consented to being a police guinea pig.
SFU criminologist David MacAlister, whose research focuses on police powers and civil liberties, said the public should be concerned about the police bringing in new tactics just months before the 2010 Winter Olympic Games,
Protesters have threatened to hold large public demonstrations and possibly attempt to disrupt the Games.
"We want to be concerned whenever we're putting a new weapon in the hands of the police and they're basically telling us 'trust us, we're not going to use it,'" said MacAlister.
Yes, Dr. MacAllister, watch these people like hawks. Owelympic protestors and members of the public: be sure to wear ear defenders, gas masks and hockey pads when nearing five ring circus venues without tickets.
Quebec recently showed us the police infiltrating and attemping to provoke violence amid peaceful demonstrators before their boots gave them away (something they've probably done for a while, but they were caught with their pants down this time). We are to trust that police agents provacateurs will not be infiltrating Olympic protests so the police can then justify using force against them? Are we to trust the police won't try engineer an incident to justify flicking the safety off on their new boom box?
There's some big picture questions that come to mind over this. We're seeing Canadian police acquire a weapon designed for and used by the occupying military against hostile groups of civilians in wartime counterinsurgency operations. There is now a direct relationship between COIN in Iraq and Afghanistan and policing in Canada, the United States and other countries. Extending the relationship between overseas wars and domestic policing, one might also view the incredulous police resistance to inquiries stemming from the use of new weapons as representative of a de facto police view of the public and civilian institutions as the enemy and something to be controlled and resisted, least of all trusted.
This I think, is part of the larger trend of increasing weaponisation and 'tactical' focus (read militarisation) of domestic policing. Police are acquiring weapons for every occassion and type of incident, from firearms, to tasers, to pepper spray, and batons, to water cannon and CS gas for larger groups, and now new sonic devices to damage your hearing. It is not hard to see that the more specialised the weapons become, the more occassions they can be deployed, and the more reliant on weapons their users become. The end result of this techno-fetishism is a dehumanisation of the policing process and a focus entirely on the tactical control element of a given scenario and an utter ignorance of context. Violence more often becomes a question of relative degree versus one of actual necessity for resolving an issue, to the point now where police will incite the scenario that allows them to deploy violence for control. Are we moving to a situation where the only tools police understand and use involve the application of a weapon system?
More from Alison and Dr. Dawg.