Vancouver police buy 'sonic gun'

Pittsburgh police used a similar device during the G20 meetings

(Update: The Vancouver Police Department announced on Nov. 17 that it would disable the LRAD’s tone-emitting feature. A press release reassured the public that if Vancouver police “ever decided in the future to explore alternative uses for the device, the VPD would develop appropriate policy and training.” The BCCLA has responded by saying, “They’ve made the right call by taking this use-of-force option off the shelf.”)

Is it a sonic weapon? Or a super-powered megaphone? Either way, a B.C. human rights group says the Vancouver Police Department’s recent purchase of a long-range acoustical device (LRAD) in advance of the 2010 Olympics is an outrage.

The LRAD 500 is a portable device about the size of a searchlight that, according to its maker, American Technology Corp., can carry a voice a distance of 300 m in a crowd. More alarming, it can emit a beam of sound that reaches 146 decibels at one metre away. That’s like standing near a jet engine at takeoff, says Maha Atrach, an audiologist with the Canadian Hearing Society, and would cause pain and could lead to hearing loss. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association fears that what it is calling a “sonic gun” will be aimed at protesters during February’s Games.

Vancouver police say they bought the LRAD to “communicate more effectively in open-air conditions,” but spokesman Const. Lindsey Houghton acknowledges its sound-blasting function could be used “if it means keeping the public safe.” Police in Pittsburgh used a similar device to control protesters during September’s G20 meeting.

The BCCLA is comparing the LRAD to police use of Tasers, recently at the centre of a costly inquiry into the 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver’s airport. “Are we not doing things backwards again, by introducing a weapon to the streets first and then discussing policy and safety later?” asks executive director David Eby. American Technology Corp. insists their product is not a weapon, but can support police in dispersing protesters and potentially prevent the use of force. The company recently announced orders from the U.S. Army Reserves of over US$2.75 million.