Wired for Sound: Australian Police Purchases of LRADs
By Craig Garret, Human Rights/Legal Observer
BA Comm; Grad Dip Prof Comm; Diploma Prof Writing & Editing; MA (Research) Brisbane, Australia
Caution urged regarding Australian Police purchases of LRADs (Long-Range Acoustic Device)
LRADs— ‘sonic weapons’ or ‘sound cannons’—can project sound up to 3.5km, look a little like a satellite dish, and can be either hand-held or mounted on cars, trucks, armoured vehicles or utes. They’ve been purchased by state police forces in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and also by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). They’re built by LRAD Corporation; are promoted as ‘communication devices’ although they have military origins; and the first civilian deployment was at Pittsburgh’s G20 protest in 2009, according to Future Tense.1
The LRAD’s maximum continuous sound projection (alert function) can reach 162 decibels… such tones cause immediate headaches and pain. Since LRADs can blast above a person’s 120-decibel discomfort mark and the 130-decibel threshold for potential hearing loss, there’s no telling what the consequences of encountering a LRAD may be.
LRAD’s are a further step in the process of the miltarisation of policing, defined by criminal justice professor Peter Kraska as “the process whereby civilian police increasingly draw from, and pattern themselves around, the tenets of militarism and the military model.”2
LRADs came to light in Australia leading into Brisbane’s G20 meeting in 2014, when Queensland Police invited protest groups to view the hardware to be used “to ensure protesters followed the routes set down for them.”3 Classified as ‘acoustic hailing devices’, Queensland Police said LRADs were not a ‘use of force option,’ but would be engaged to ‘direct large crowds.’4 However, the LRAD alert function has been used to disperse crowds in Toronto, Canada (2010); Chicago (2012), NYC and Ferguson in the US (2014); and in Latin America and China. When used as sound cannons LRADs are classified as ‘non-lethal weapons.’
Such civilian deployments extend to the heart of this subject. Speaking on RN’s Law Report, Dr James Parker, from the Institute for International Law & the Humanities at Melbourne University, explains:
[LRADs] expand the nature of police state military authority… It’s an issue of sonic dominance… an assertion of acoustic authority by the state over protest.
This isn’t simply a new take on old ideas: ‘Classical music’ at train stations to move on ‘loitering teenagers’; loudspeakers blasting music to drown out chants and songs (anti-APEC protests, Philippines 2015); helicopters hovering above protesters for hours (anti-WEF demonstration, Melbourne 2000); or the mosquito—a box that emits pulses of sound to stop people (usually teenagers or the homeless) congregating in certain areas.
No matter who you are or why you’re in an place, if you’re in the path of a LRAD you’re impacted exactly the same as anyone else. Imagine sitting in a park reading, when a demonstration passes by. Then a LRAD is deployed to ensure the march follows the route set down by the police. What happens if you’re in line of that LRAD?
First you’d hear a high-frequency piercing noise; you may feel dizzy, nauseous and disoriented. You would feel extreme discomfort. Depending on how long the LRAD is deployed (maximum limit is 30 seconds on the lowest volume setting, but there are cases where the duration lasts three minutes on higher settings), you may feel ill; there may be a drilling pain in your ears; you could be incapacitated; or your ear drums may rupture. You may suffer tinnitus and hearing loss for anywhere up to a year. Worst case, you suffer permanent nerve damage and your hearing never recovers. English professor Karen Piper suffered injuries from a LRAD and won damages from the City of Pittsburgh.5
LRADs have been used in search-and-rescue operations, to keep large birds off runways, to deter pirates, and to frighten wildlife from around power generators. But in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan they’re used to clear buildings. When the people run outside to escape the noise, snipers shoot them. LRAD effects have been likened to standing in front of a jet engine,6 and anyone within range is equally affected.
It’s clear, given the short- and long-term damage LRADs can do to individuals, that their use is a ‘use of force option.’ Police have a duty of care to the public when managing crowds, so any use, let alone misuse, of LRADs could engage several bodies of law.
Purchased as ‘communication devices,’ LRADs aren’t regulated as weapons, and to date, no Australian police force has been able to provide concerned community groups with copies of their ‘guidelines,’ ‘operations policies,’ or ‘standards of practice’ governing LRAD use.
In 2014, attorneys associated with the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild representing several people injured when NYPD officers deployed a Long Range Acoustic Device in Midtown Manhattan delivered a letter to New York Police Commissioner William Bratton today demanding that the NYPD refrain from using the LRAD for crowd control purposes without first conducting thorough, independent testing, and developing appropriate written and public guidelines for training, use, reporting, and oversight requirements.
Lawyers for the National Lawyers Guild contend that the NTPD “utilised the LRAD unconstitutionally and dangerously, without having first conducted appropriate studies, created appropriate policies and oversight mechanisms relating to safety and appropriate use of force, and trained officers in them.”
Such secrecy is concerning. LRADs aren’t just a way to direct crowds. They distort sound precisely to exploit our hearing range; they are indiscriminate; and their use can’t be seen.
The nature of sound means that when it’s used as a weapon it leaves limited material evidence; like a virus, once it’s out there, no one can control where it goes or who’s affected; and for those in its path, they can’t protect themselves or move away when it comes at them.
Weaponising sound via sonic cannons could see Australian police forces indiscriminately inflicting large numbers of people with harmful and significant long-term injuries. Even if they are never used, the existence of such weapons in Australia serves to generate unnecessary fear and this can have a dampening affect upon the willingness of people to take part in public protest.
However, like all repressive technologies and force tactics available to police, the actual use of these weapons is not guaranteed. Their deployment depends upon the context of the protests, the social and political climate and whether or not these weapons would be seen by media and the wider community as ‘acceptable’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘appropriate’ under the circumstances. If Australian police forces anticipate a risk of public, media and political condemnation after a using a certain tactic it will deter them. Likewise, if they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they may face costly litigation for damages after these weapons are deployed then that may also serve to restrict their use. The role of legal observers, human rights advocates and activist lawyers will be critical if these weapons are ever deployed against members of the public in Australia.
The New Sound of Crowd Control by Alex Pasternack, Motherboard, 17th December 2014.
This Is the Sound Cannon Used Against Protesters in Ferguson, by Lily Hay Newman, Slate, 14th August 2014.