By Emily Ask
The Vancouver Police Department purchased a Long Range Acoustic Device just in time for the 2010 Olympics. Many, including the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, are concerned about police using the crowd control device as a weapon on protesters.
The American Technology Corporation developed the LRAD in response to a request by the U.S. Navy after an attack in 2000 when al-Qaida terrorists approached the USS Cole in a fishing boat off the coast of Yemen and set off explosives, killing 17 American soldiers.
Robert Putnam, Media and Investor Relations for American Technology Corporation, explained the LRAD can send clear communication up to three kilometres away by concentrating sound waves into a 30-60 degree beam. Compared to the low quality sound of a blowhorn, which only reaches up to 20 yards, due to sound dispersing in 360 degrees, this is a significant technological improvement, he said.
BCCLA spokesperson Greg McMullen is concerned about the concentrated soundwaves and high-pitched tones, and the LRAD’s potential use as a weapon.
“There are well documented cases of [the LRAD] being used as a weapon. We’ve seen it used most recently at the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, it’s been used off the coast of Somalia to repel pirates, in Chechnya by Russian forces and . . . by China to repress protests. We feel that though it could be used as an address system, it’s a weaponized system and its ability to be used against protesters is quite disturbing,” he said.
Putnam denied claims that the LRAD caused blackouts or impaired vision, but did say that proximity to the device and volume could play a role in hearing damage like any other public address system.
The LRAD can be found in places like Chile, China, France, Norway and many other European countries. Outside of the navy, the LRAD is used by the military, law enforcement and wildlife preservation, among other organizations. Its high-pitched tone can disperse large crowds and deter birds from windfarms, tailings ponds and vineyards.
Putnam said he has not heard of any significant problems with the device and that the groups who have used the LRAD have reported it to be efficient for their purposes.
The Vancouver Police Department announced that it has disabled the tone and plans to use the LRAD for communication purposes only. However, the BCCLA is still criticizing the VPD for purchasing a weapon without consulting the Police Board.
Yet while the BCCLA calls it a weapon, the LRAD is marketed as a communication device, so it is unclear whether the VPD crossed any lines.
McMullen acknowledged that crowd control may be needed if a protest gets out of hand, but thinks police may be too eager to try out their new high-tech purchase.
“Our concern with the LRAD, as opposed to things like tear gas and rubber bullets, is that it might be seen as a gentler alternative and used more readily by police — as we’ve seen with Tasers.
“[Police use Tasers] where you could never imagine using a firearm . . . Where other crowd control [techniques] would not be used, where you would never imagine shooting off pepper spray or tear gas . . . people would still use the LRAD . . . just because [it] may be slightly less risky.”
McMullen continued to say that, despite the ATC’s claim, the BCCLA has received reports of the LRAD causing blurred vision, disorientation and vomiting — not to mention the risk of permanent hearing damage.
The LRAD purchase increased the BCCLU’s concerns about the limiting of freedom of expression at the Olympics. McMullen said Vancouver police and various Olympic committees have been given too much power and that many unnecessary bylaws have been passed.
McMullen said many of the bylaws would not stand up against a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, however they were passed so quickly that the BCCLA had no time to launch one before the Olympics.
“We’ve seen friends of people planning protests getting visits from the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit teams to ask them, ‘What exactly do your friends have planned for protests during the Olympics?’ We’ve just seen a lot of techniques that don’t seem to line up with Canada’s democratic values, we’re not setting the example that we should be, and really it seems we’re following the example of Beijing.”
McMullen said the BCCLU will fight against any extension of the bylaws past the end of the Olympics.