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TORONTO—The police have tried to convince the public that its Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD), purchased for the G8 and G20 summits, were strictly communications devices—that they weren’t to be used as weapons. But internal police intelligence reports suggest otherwise.
Outside of public messaging, the police have in fact referred to the devices as weapons, according to documents obtained by The Dominion.
“Whether you call it a weapon or a communications device, it can be used in situations where it can cause people significant hearing loss, significant pain,” said Abby Deshman, a Program Director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).“They can be used as weapons; they have been used as weapons in the past.”
The CCLA believes that the government should have properly tested and regulated the LRAD before putting it into use—and this would have happened if the LRAD had been designated a weapon.
The CCLA is now calling on the government to institute stronger rules on their use based on testing conducted since the summits.
Manufactured by LRAD Corporation, the devices can play recorded MP3s or be spoken into through a microphone, and they also have a built-in alert function that emits high-pitched tones.
“This non-lethal weapon can produce permanent ear damage,” reads a May 31, 2010 intelligence brief created by the G20 Joint Intelligence Group (JIG). This group consisted of the Toronto Police, Ontario Provincial Police, RCMP and Peel Region police. JIG intelligence reports were sent to various security partners, government departments and, in some cases, international and corporate partners.
A week later, the JIG issued a correction, inline with the official police messaging, stating that the LRAD “is in fact a communications device.”
Toronto Police did not respond to a request for comment on the difference between the internal documents and the public messaging about the LRAD.
A 2010 briefing note created prior to the G20 by a media relations officer with the Toronto Police detailed the police’s official position. According to the note, the LRAD is a “tool to send emergency notifications, directions for evacuations, etc.” It added that the tool will “allow police to communicate to large crowds in various languages.”
This note described the LRAD very differently from a JIG report created shortly after the September 2009 Pittsburg G20 summit.
The older report described the devices as “sound cannons” to “engage unlawful protestors,” originally developed for military purposes and was “employed against Iraqi insurgents and Somali pirates.”
The Pittsburg G20 summit was the first place these devices were used by the police, rather than by the military. “Police used the device to emit a high-pitch sound that forced demonstrators to cover their ears and withdraw,” reads the report.
“There were no reports of demonstrators attending the hospital,” the report also noted.
Despite this claim, a bystander alleging permanent hearing damage due to the LRAD is suing the city of Pittsburgh, according to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union dated September 21, 2011.
Karen Piper, the plaintiff in this suit, was subjected to the high pitch sound of a nearby LRAD for several minutes during the protest. She got no warning before the alert started, according to the release.
“Piper immediately suffered intense pain as mucus discharged from her ear. She became nauseous and dizzy and developed a severe headache,” read the press release. “Since then, Piper has suffered from tinnitus (ringing of the ears), barotrauma, left ear pain and fluid drainage, dizziness and nausea. She still suffers from permanent nerve damage.”
Concerned about how the LRAD would be used at Toronto’s G20 Summit, the CCLA took the matter to court. A ruling was made on June 23, 2010. No injunction on the use of LRADs was granted, but a judge did order greater restriction on their use.
“Part of the reason that the LRADs were bought or deployed in a hurry was that one-time funding was available from the federal government in order to police for the G20,” said Deshman.
Using federal funds, the Toronto Police acquired four LRADs in preparation for the G8 and G20 summits. Three were the portable “100X” model and one was a larger “300X” model, which can be mounted on a vehicle or boat. On top of that, the OPP also acquired three LRADs of their own.
Alphonse MacNeil, the RCMP officer in charge of all G20 policing, approved the purchase of these LRADs. However, when it was revealed by the Globe and Mail that the RCMP does not approve of the LRAD being used for crowd control or in urban settings, pressure was placed on MacNeil by the Ministry of Public Safety to justify his actions.
“Public Safety are on me about why I supported the purchase of the LRAD for TPS and OPP,” wrote MacNeil in an internal email.
In response, MacNeil received a briefing note on the LRAD, which said that the Toronto Police Service had developed a set of guidelines for appropriate use, and that the force had already used the tool to execute a warrant. It also pointed to the Pittsburg G20 and the Vancouver Olympics as examples of other events where the LRAD had been used.
The document explained that in addition to delivering audio recordings the “alert functions can be used if necessary.” It noted that the manufacturer recommends never using it for more than two-to-five seconds. It also explained that in order to use the LRAD, police commanders on the ground would need permission from an off-site Incident Commander.
CCLA’s Deshman said the police and other law enforcement officers have to be “extremely careful” about using new technologies like the LRAD.
“We can’t just take manufacturers’ assertions about when a device is appropriate and when it should be used, because they have an interest in selling the device,” Deshman said. “What we need is our government to strongly and independently test these things.”
While the LRAD was used by Toronto Police to amplify an eviction notice at Occupy Toronto in November 2011, it wasn’t used during the G20 protests, despite the chaos on the streets of Toronto.
The CCLA was still concerned and, after the summit, pressed to have the LRAD
regulated as a weapon. The province undertook a study on the matter and a report was issued in November 2011.
The report was based on a review of literature and field tests of the device. It established the disagreement on whether the LRAD is a weapon but did not take a definitive stance on the matter. It did, however, recommend changes that could be made in how the LRAD is regulated.
The report also noted that police operating the device may also be at risk of ear damage, recommending that operators of the 300X model stand at least two meteres behind the device.
“The report indicated that the existing limits on when LRAD can be used need to be updated,” said Deshman, “so we called on the government to implement that immediately. We haven’t yet received a response.”
In recent years, police forces in Canada have been acquiring another new device, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These miniature robotic helicopters can fit in the trunk of a car and be flown by remote control to conduct aerial surveillance. They have been deployed to assist in homicide investigations, search and rescue and to view traffic accidents from above.
The RCMP, OPP and several local police forces across Canada have acquired these devices from Canadian companies that manufacture them: Waterloo-based Aeryon and Saskatoon-based DraganFly. In August 2011, the New York Times reported that an Aeryon’s Scout model UAV was donated to Libyan rebels by an anonymous donor.
A more advanced UAV, the Predator Drone, was used by a local sheriff in North Dakota. The aircraft is normally used to patrol the US-Canada border, but in this instance was used to assist the sheriff to spy on a family and their land.
A version of the Predator Drone armed with missiles is used by both the US Air Force and the CIA. These drones are reportedly used to carry out targeted assassinations in countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We are increasingly seeing police interest in purchasing new technologies, technologies that often have been developed in context such as military use,” said Deshman. “I think this is a trend we will continue to see as technology develops.”
Deshman points to the Taser as an example of a device that was introduced without sufficient regulations or testing. There were 26 taser-related deaths in Canada between 2003 and 2008, including the high-profile death of Robert Dziekanski. National attention on Tasers, particularly after police Tasered and killed Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport in 2007, led to deeper scrutiny of the device and its regulation.
Deshman said Canada should learn from this lesson.
“It was probably the worst possible way for them to introduce a new technology,” said Deshman. “What we should be doing is having a lot of public discussion about new technologies, about the benefits and drawbacks.”
Tim Groves is a freelance journalist and investigative researcher based in Toronto.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.