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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sound cannons too scary

June 23, 2010

Trust us, the police insist. These controversial sound cannons we want to blast at G20 protesters won’t hurt a bit.

Of course, that’s what they once said about tasers as well.

Chastened widely for their use of the stun gun, the wary RCMP has deemed the LRADS, or long range acoustic devices, as too dangerous to use for crowd control.

Yet lawyers for the Toronto Police and OPP insist there is nothing to fear from their use this weekend as they argued against an injunction sought by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Labour Congress.

“It is only being used as a communication tool. Full stop,” Toronto Police lawyer Darryl Smith told Justice David Brown.

“It is not a taser. It is really fear mongering to use that analogy,” he argued.

“It’s not being used and it’s not designed to be used in an aggressive way.”

But lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo, representing the CCLA and CLC, warned the newly purchased sound guns are weapons that can cause serious hearing damage and are being rushed into use without having been properly tested in a downtown setting and with officers receiving minimal training in how to safely use them.

“Surely the citizens of Toronto are not going to be used as guinea pigs to see the impact of these sonic cannons in an urban environment,” Cavalluzzo said. “We need independent studies.”

G20 protesters will have to wait until Friday morning to find out if the judge will allow the police to use their new sonic toys. The contentious sound guns were initially developed as a maritime weapon for the U.S. military to warn small boats to stay away from naval ships after al-Qaeda bombed USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. Used in Iraq and Afghanistan for crowd control, their first North American use came at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh last year to disperse protesters.

Toronto Police have bought four of the cannons and the OPP have purchased three. They can be used in two different ways with the switch of a button: the first is the “communication” function — which turns it into a powerful loudspeaker that blasts pre-recorded messages. The more contentious second use is “alert” — which directs a high-pitched ear-piercing sound at a target.

Toronto Police insist they’ll be used be used mainly as a new and better way of communicating with large crowds and at levels that will pose no more threat to hearing than leaf blowers and weed whackers.

Yet according to an internal review by the RCMP — the senior partner in Toronto’s summit security — the Mounties took a pass on using the sonic guns in urban settings out of concern they will possibly “cause hearing damage to those targeted or in close proximity.”

The RCMP also noted that the Boston Police Department stopped using their sonic cannons for crowd control “out of a concern for public safety and fear of civil litigation issues”.

The only independent test done on the device was hastily conducted for the OPP just last week at an empty Huntsville airstrip, Cavalluzzo told the court, which doesn’t mimic an urban setting where the sound beams will be ricocheting off tall office buildings, with the potential of harming bystanders.

As for training, he said 22 Toronto Police officers were given two hours of instruction and then given a quiz so challenging that they all scored 100%.

“The training was absolutely absurd,” Cavalluzzo charged.

According to Toronto Police guidelines, the ear-piercing alert blast can only be used at full volume for a maximum of three to five seconds and aimed at a crowd more than 75 metres away.

The concern, said the civil liberties lawyer, is “technology creep.”

If G20 protests turn into mass chaos, barely-trained officers caught in an intense situation might throw those procedures to the wind. “There is a real reasonable fear that will happen,” he argued.

It all sounds too scary to me. Let’s just hit the mute button and be done with them.

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