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Friday, October 9, 2009

This PR goes to 11

Posted by on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 11:42 AM

Maybe you thought all those riot cops in town for the G-20 -- and all the high-tech equipment they brought with them -- looked Orwellian.

Maybe you saw the LRAD, a vehicle-mounted amplifier system capable of driving protesters away by directing high-pitched sounds at them. Or maybe you heard its creepily automated announcement: "By order of Pittsburgh chief of police, I hereby declare this an unlawful assembly ..." And maybe you thought this was the kind of technology Big Brother would buy into. 

Well, you haven't seen anything yet. 

Because for pure Orwellian weirdness, nothing tops this doublethinking/doubletalking press release, sent out by the Bureau of Police yesterday.

The release, and an ensuing media demonstration of the LRAD, drew some media coverage. But it appears to be a response -- two weeks after the fact -- to concerns sparked in part by a phrase first used by The New York Times. The Times referred to the LRAD as a "sound cannon," and quoted city officials boasting about its use.

"Other law enforcement agencies will be watching to see how it was used," Nate Harper told the Times 

Or ... um ... maybe not. Because according to the line the city is peddling now, there's nothing special about the LRAD after all. 

"The technical ability of LRAD is not that of a 'sound cannon' nor is that the intended function or use of the device," insists the release sent out yesterday.

In fact, the LRAD is just "a long-range communication device." It's a "highly portable and mobile tool" which is "simplistic in its deployment." 

Well, that sounds like fun! In fact, I remember wanting one of those when I was a kid

The Pittsburgh police, the statement goes on to say, use the device in "tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations" in order to ensure that "communication can/will continue through/during police actions." The advantage of the LRAD, we're told, is that it "allows for visual verification and lets the operator(s) know that the messaging [is] being heard."

It's unclear what this "visual verification" would be. Presumably, though, it involves citizens clasping their hands to their ears and wincing. Because that's how folks responded to it during the G-20.

But really, what was their problem? Here are some of the places where such a system has already been used, according to the release:

-- Natural disasters

-- Large celebrations

-- Shore and land evacuations

-- Search and Rescue

-- Neighborhoods "which may [be] affected by a particular situation [and need] to take necessary safety precautions."

What? Nobody's thought to use it in Bingo parlors yet?

Notice, though, that the release is reversing the city's own previous  claims about the LRAD. When the Times was in town, city officials were boasting that Pittsburgh was the first to use the equipment. Now, though,  the city is claiming that "The LRAD device can/has been used in many SWAT, hostage and barricade situations around the country."

So ... I guess those law-enforcement folks weren't really watching Pittsburgh after all. Were they, Chief Harper?

It's pretty clear what's going on here. The police have a PR problem on their hands. The LRAD creeps people out, and the ACLU says one person may have suffered hearing loss as a result of exposure to it. So now the city is, belatedly, trying to put a happy face on the thing. 

Yes, the LRAD can be used for benign purposes. But as the release kinda sorta acknowledges, it can be used in a much more forceful way as well. 

"The LRAD system that is utilized by the PBP is capable of producing extremely high sound pressure levels," it admits. But while the volume could be boosted high enough to cause real pain, the release maintains, that didn't happen during the G-20 summit.

I absolutely believe that the volume knob wasn't turned up as high as it could have been. (After an encounter with the LRAD, a CP reporter overhead one protester say to the other, "That thing is just stupid.") But the city now seems to be pretending that, because the equipment wasn't used to its maximum potential, it's no more fearsome than an armor-plated ice-cream truck.

Which just makes me wonder: Why do the civil-rights protesters in this picture look so miserable? Don't they know that fire hoses are just used to put out flames?
click to enlarge firehose.jpg

The LRAD ... just another toy in the hands of law-enforcement. Nothing to see here folks, move along. 

ADDED: And speaking of law-enforcement toys, I'd be remiss if I didn't note this LRAD-based ring tone for your cell phone! Jon Stewart proposes, local media artist T. Foley disposes. 

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