Riotous protesters marching at the G20 summit next month may be
greeted with ear-splitting "sound cannons," the latest Toronto police
tool for quelling unruly crowds.
Toronto police have purchased four, long-range acoustic devices
(LRAD) - often referred to as sound guns or sound cannons - for the
upcoming June 26-27 summit, the Star has learned.
Purchased this month, the LRADs will become a permanent fixture in
Toronto law enforcement, said police spokesperson Const. Wendy Drummond.
"They were purchased as part of the G20 budget process," Drummond
said. "It's definitely going to be beneficial for us, not only in the
G20 but in any future large gatherings."
Drummond stressed the devices will primarily be used by police as a
"communication tool." The devices double as loudspeakers and can blast
booming, directional messages or emergency notifications in 50 different
languages; Drummond said Toronto police have used one of the devices
already while executing a search warrant this month.
But critics say they are really non-lethal weapons and infringe
upon protester rights.
Originally designed for the U.S. Navy, LRADs can emit ear-blasting
sounds so high in frequency they transcend normal thresholds of pain.
While they are used everywhere from Iraq to the high seas for repelling
pirates, LRADs are being increasingly employed as a crowd-control device
and at last year's G20
summit in Pittsburgh, police used them on protesters before
deploying tear gas and stun grenades.
The acoustical devices can also be pointed at specific targets,
transmitting a "laser" of sound that is less aggravating for anyone
standing outside its beam.
Of Toronto's newly-acquired LRADs, three are handheld devices that
can broadcast noise heard from 600 metres away. Their volume can reach
135 decibels, which surpasses the pain threshold of 110 to 120.
The fourth device is a larger model that can be mounted on vehicles
or marine vessels and can generate noise reaching 143 decibels, audible
from as far as 1500 metres.
To compare, a normal conversation measures at about 60 decibels.
The U.S. National Institute on Deafness says sustained noise above 85
decibels can cause permanent hearing damage.
Drummond acknowledges LRADs can cause permanent hearing damage if
used improperly but says Toronto police are developing guidelines for
deployment. She said officers will also only use the device's "alert"
function if crowds become riotous and will use the manufacturer's
recommendation of firing short bursts, two to three seconds long.
"The piercing sound would make someone stop in their tracks for a
moment," she said. "Your instinct would be to cover your ears. So rather
than being violent, the tendency would be to stop the violence and
protect your hearing."
While Drummond couldn't comment on how much the devices cost, they
were purchased from B.C.-based Current Corporation, which sells LRADs at
about $10,000 for the handheld models and about $25,000 for the larger
ones, according to sales representative Don MacLeod.
MacLeod said his company trained police officers in Toronto on May
18, sharing deployment guidelines that include shooting a narrower beam
of noise in small spaces, since the sounds can bounce off building
surfaces or cars.
He criticized irresponsible users of the LRAD, including
Pittsburgh's use of the device last year when officers ran a continuous
aural assault as opposed to the short bursts, which Current Corp.
But MacLeod defends the LRAD as an extremely valuable communication
tool, used for everything from evacuation notices and hostage
negotiations to riot control.
But Queen's University professor David Murakami Wood, an expert in
surveillance, criticizes neutralizing euphemisms like "communication
tools. He says LRADs should be considered potential weapons and large
international summits can often be used as testing grounds for new
police technologies or techniques.
"They're being very disingenuous about what this is," he said. "It
emits a sound that is in fact at frequency levels that can go way beyond
what human beings can put up with in terms of pain and can be
For University of Toronto adjunct professor Peter Rosenthal, a
lawyer who has participated in several trials involving Taser
deployments, anything that can stun people or crowds should be
"Tasers were introduced and said to be totally benign but have now
generally been recognized as dangerous weapons," he said. "To start
using experimental weapons on people is really outrageous in my view."