Friday, May 28, 2010

Sound cannons at G20 Summit in Toronto

That $1.1 billion figure for the G20 Summit and security is now going to be probed by the Parliamentary Budget Officer (and maybe the Auditor General). Well, theoretically anyway, given the Harper government's obstructive tendencies. They may have a very hard time avoiding scrutiny of this one given public outrage.

Here's another aspect of the summit that might give you a bit more of that feeling of outrage. In the Star yesterday, it was reported that the Toronto police have bought four sound cannons for crowd control during the G20 summit. Or, if you wish to use the Orwellian name for these cannons, they're also known as "long range acoustic devices." The problem? These devices, if used improperly, can cause hearing damage. The fact that our police have purchased these weapons and may use them on the crowds who have legitimate rights to protest at this event under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms deserves serious attention:
Originally designed for the U.S. Navy, LRADs can emit ear-blasting sounds so high in frequency they transcend normal thresholds of pain. While they are used everywhere from Iraq to the high seas for repelling pirates, LRADs are being increasingly employed as a crowd-control device and at last year’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh, police used them on protesters before deploying tear gas and stun grenades.
Of Toronto’s newly-acquired LRADs, three are handheld devices that can broadcast noise heard from 600 metres away. Their volume can reach 135 decibels, which surpasses the pain threshold of 110 to 120.
Drummond acknowledges LRADs can cause permanent hearing damage if used improperly but says Toronto police are developing guidelines for deployment. She said officers will also only use the device’s “alert” function if crowds become riotous and will use the manufacturer’s recommendation of firing short bursts, two to three seconds long.

“The piercing sound would make someone stop in their tracks for a moment,” she said. “Your instinct would be to cover your ears. So rather than being violent, the tendency would be to stop the violence and protect your hearing.”
But Queen’s University professor David Murakami Wood, an expert in surveillance, criticizes neutralizing euphemisms like “communication tools. He says LRADs should be considered potential weapons and large international summits can often be used as testing grounds for new police technologies or techniques.

“They’re being very disingenuous about what this is,” he said. “It emits a sound that is in fact at frequency levels that can go way beyond what human beings can put up with in terms of pain and can be damaging.

For University of Toronto adjunct professor Peter Rosenthal, a lawyer who has participated in several trials involving Taser deployments, anything that can stun people or crowds should be considered dangerous.

“Tasers were introduced and said to be totally benign but have now generally been recognized as dangerous weapons,” he said. “To start using experimental weapons on people is really outrageous in my view.” (emphasis added)
These devices are brand new to Toronto police, they've only been trained on them 10 days ago. They are just now "developing guidelines" for deployment. While today's Star report seems to lessen the drama surrounding the use of the machines by talking to people who were at the Pittsburgh G20 summit where they were used, there is still reason for caution.

I hope our municipal politicians and members at all levels will weigh in on this in the next month to exert some control over the potential use of these damaging and torturous devices. It is shocking that our police have purchased such machines and may deploy them against protesters who will have every right to be there, be loud and say whatever they like. All it takes is one slip by a novice user making a snap judgment about a rowdy protest and grave damage could be done. With the newness of these machines, this is a developing situation that's looking for trouble.