#NotWithYou: Why more weapons for Victoria Police is a Very Bad Idea

In a carefully orchestrated public relations launch on Thursday 22 March, Victoria Police revealed it’s armoury of new repressive weaponry.

The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton has expressed concern about how these weapons will be perceived by the public.  “We need the community to be with us on this’’ he said.  Well, we are not and here’s why.

The Operations Response Unit (ORU) received an initial $7.6 million with an ongoing ($35 million) over five years to “improve the management of large scale or high-risk public order incidents.”  The Victorian government, as part of its inappropriately named ‘Public Safety Package’ announced this funding back in 2016 and now we see what VicPol ended up buying with it.
These new weapons will be used by the Operational Response Unit (ORU) and distributed from a new hi-tech vehicle that will record evidence and can livestream to an offsite command centre. Most of these weapons have already been in use in some form by specialist units such  the Critical Incident Response Team and Special Operations Group and have come out at recent prison protests or hostage scenarios.   However this represents a significant rollout to more ‘regular’ public order police.
The only weapon that is totally new for VicPol is the VKS Pepperball firearm (pictured below). A 175 shot semi-automatic rifle that fires capsicum rounds, blunt force pellets the size of marbles or dye markers to brand people for arrest later.  These pellets can blind, maim and leave permanent injuries depending where they hit the body. (Check out the demo for it here.)   There’s footage of these guns being fired at protesters in Portland Oregan (USA) last year here.
The 40-millimetre rubber bullet launcher so proudly displayed by  Superintendent Tim Tully has resulted in significant injuries and fatalities around the world. Just last year a 25 year old protester was killed by a rubber bullet in Paraguay.
Stinger grenades  – (pictured below) is a pain compliance, distraction and disorientation device for ‘crowd management’, it may be hand thrown or launched in the general direction of the crowd and may be deployed for ground bursts or aerial bursts at the discretion of the operator  – It explodes releasing nine 32-calibre rubber pellets to waist height with a range of five metres.
The Flash/noise distraction grenades designed to shock and disperse crowds are routinely being used in Israel/Palestine and other conflict zones and have maimed children, can burst ear drums and  generate dangerous fear and panic in crowds.
In terms of capsicum canisters, that detonate to release a cloud of capsicum, deaths can occur if people and gas gets trapped in a confined area such as in prison cells.

Injuries from Less Lethal Weapons:  – Theodore C. Chan, MD, FACEP, Professor of Clinical Medicine, University of California San Diego Medical Center.

Instead of investing in communities these new expensive weapons increase the likelihood of violence against communities that are not valued in Victoria, t

A ‘Stinger Grenade’ mentioned above

he incarcerated and the marginalised. They will be used against teenagers at parties, against frustrated prisoners, and against citizens standing up against injustices that the government ignores.

Having observed and documented crowd control policing over the past seven years, Melbourne Activist Legal Support can safely say Victoria Police already deploy riot equipment unnecessarily, inappropriately, dangerously and in ways that infringe upon human rights. We have witnessed OC Spray being used indiscriminately, and against police’s own regulations –  on multiple occasions.
Victoria Police have stated that the main purpose for deploying these weapons is to “enhance the safety of community members and our members”. No  – these are weapons will be used against Victorian citizens.  Independent studies show that riot gear has a destabilising effect at public order events, tending to aggravate and escalate the situation and making it far more dangerous for both community and police.  Riot policing generates fear, anger, distrust and disorder.
At an event referred to during the media launch, the Milo Yiannopoulos protests in Flemington in December 2017, MALS Legal Observers witnessed police ignore hours of vitriolic racial and religious abuse of local residents by white nationalist groups, then we saw intensely provocative riot formations deployed against the very people who had experienced the abuse. Many local residents felt they they were under attack by police.
“One man who has lived at the housing estate for 15 years said he had been standing with his arms linked with other residents in a peaceful stand against the right-wing protesters who were taunting them, when they were doused with pepper-spray by police wielding batons.” –The Age 13 December 2017

Photo: Jason South

Far from justifying the purchase of these weapons, the policing in Flemington that night proved that riot policing makes things worst, and that policing in Victoria is already more intensively focused upon marginalized and ‘less-valued’ communities.
Whenever weapons like this are brought out at protests, kids parties (yes, teenage parties the spill out into the street) or during prison protests, they are routinely misused.
The almost daily misuse of OC spray by Victoria Police is a case in point.  These new weapons make the abuse of civil, political and human rights in Victoria more likely and more severe.  Under human rights law, any restrictions on protest, and any use of force, must be for a legitimate purpose and be proportionate to that aim.  We know from experience that these new weapons will be used without a justifiable purpose, against people posing no threat to police, and in disproportionate ways.

Police spraying toward a Legal Observer and toward no-one who was threatening him – in contravention of Vicpol’s regulations of use. – Melbourne, June 2017

This million dollar purchase by the Victorian government demonstrates the reach of the ever-growing Global Non-Lethal Weapons Market – a multi-billion dollar export industry in repressive technology that fuels conflicts, human rights atrocities and state repression around the world.  Law enforcement departments everywhere have been sucked in by the slick marketing of this ‘less-than-lethal’ arms industry.  Much of the repressive tech that VicPol purchases is never actually deployed (they have LRAD sound cannons for instance but never used them). Whilst civil and political unrest is very profitable for the companies driving this market, it costs taxpayers millions that could be otherwise spent on people and communities.

If the safety of the Victorian community is indeed the highest priority for Victoria Police – it should look to building trust and accountability.  If the Victorian Government is serious about community safety then investing in community resources, infrastructure and support would be far more effective and perhaps a tad less likely to infringe upon Victoria’s own Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
Police misconduct, police abuse of power, police pointing guns into crowds and dressed up like robo-cops all serve to destroy trust.  Victoria Police already have strained relationships with many sections of our community, do they really want to distance and dehumanise themselves even further?
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) has reported upon the disturbing trend of state governments passing draconian laws that curb civil and political rights and restricting civil society organisations to advocate.  The actual or threatened use of these sorts of repressive weapons also impinges upon our civil and political rights. If people stay away from a protest out of fear of police then their right to peaceful assembly is being restricted.  If people leave a peace assembly if they see police with weapons then their right to peaceful assembly is being restricted.

So what can we do about it?

The actual use of these new 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.
By ‘revealing’ these weapons to sympathetic journalists in such a careful way,  and writing to community organisations and human rights bodies that same day,  Victoria Police were essentially asking for a social license to use them. It is imperative that they are not given this.
If Victoria Police anticipate a public, media and political backlash it will deter use of these weapons.
Likewise, if they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they may face costly litigation 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 Victoria

We are citizens not enemy combatants.  Do not deploy weapons on us.  #NotWithYou

Further background:

This new riot gear is part of the $2 billion Victorian State Government package that includes a massive new training facility for special operations police, a $15 million a ‘state-of-the-art, New York-style’  24/7 Monitoring and Assessment (surveillance) centre in Melbourne’s CBD.
Also included is a $227 million IT data intelligence program run by SAS Institute Australia which will merge databases and allow predictive tracking that will make the Cambridge Analytics revelations seem relatively benign.  Body worn cameras, as well as more than 3100 extra police officers are part of the package.  This is all tied up in the Andrews Government’s ‘Community Safety Statement’ which was developed in the context of an Victoria’s ongoing racialised law & order auctions between the major parties.
See also:

Who’s who in Victoria Police

Wired for sound: Australian police force purchases of LRADs

Caution urged regarding Australian police force 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 the Victorian, QLD, SA and WA state police services, and by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). They’re built by LRAD Corporation (lradx.com); 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 (slate.com):

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.”(The Intercept)

LRADs came to light in Australia leading into Brisbane’s G20 meeting (2014), when QLD police (QPS) invited protest groups to view the hardware to be used ‘to ensure protesters followed the routes set down for them’ (The Guardian). Classified as ‘acoustic hailing devices’, QPS said LRADs were not a ‘use of force option’, but would be engaged to ‘direct large crowds.’ (brisbanetimes.com.au). 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 (aclupa.org).

A St. Charles County USA SWAT vehicle equipped with an LRAD 500X-RE. Photo by Jamelle Bouie.

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 (rferl.org), 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 (http://www.nlgnyc.org) 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.

Craig Garret, Human Rights  / Legal Observer
BA Comm; Grad Dip Prof Comm; Diploma Prof Writing & Editing; MA (Research) Brisbane, Australia


See also:

The New Sound of Crowd Control by Alex Pasternack, Motherboard, December 17, 2014