As a verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial nears, officials are treading lightly.
The proof? In the face of public outcry, Oakland police say they will not use a controversial device that could help them communicate with crowds in the aftermath of the verdict.
The LRAD, or long range acoustic device, functions as an extremely powerful mobile loudspeaker, but switch it to another setting, and it emits a painful, high-pitched noise that can cause permanent hearing loss. Concerns about use of the device at G20 summit protests recently prompted a Canadian court to order an injunction, then restrictions on use of the machine by Toronto police. Critics call it a “sonic cannon,” while Oakland police have said that protesters would only incur hearing damage if they stood close to the device without protecting their ears.
Although police trained with the device during drills two weeks ago, City Council member Jean Quan insists officers do not intend to use it during the protests. Quan and other City Council members recently spoke with police about the device.
“The chief will tell you he’s not planning on using it unless there is a life-or-death situation,” she said.
But the Oakland Police Department is not the only agency with the device. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office also purchased an LRAD in June, and participated in the OPD's training two weeks ago at the Port of Oakland.
News of the machine has spread among activists planning protests for after the Mehserle verdict. They are concerned about excessive police force.
“We’re not doing anything violent, we’re not promoting anything violent," said Tracey Bell-Borden, an organizer with the Oakland for Justice Coalition. "But now we’re getting earplugs for us and our children."
Ready to utilize the LRAD on verdict day, Alameda County officials seemed unaware Wednesday of Oakland’s promise. Undersheriff Richard Lucia said his department would use the machine to communicate with large crowds, diminishing the perceived need for police force.
“It’s being portrayed as some sort of deadly device or something,” Lucia said. “Basically it’s a loudspeaker we talk to people on. There are other ways it can be used, but that was never our intent.”
Lt. Mark Gordillo of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office said Pittsburgh, Pa. police were the first in the country to purchase the LRAD, which they used to direct and disperse crowds, employing the piercing noise, during G20 protests in 2009. The device has also been used by the military.
The Sheriff’s Office’s LRAD can emit sound up to 500 yards away. Gordillo said the Oakland Police Department’s is more powerful.
During the recent training in Oakland, Gordillo said, “with ear protection … yards away, we could hear very well.”
Alameda officials said they made their $16,000 purchase for regular SWAT needs, not because of the Mehserle trial. Oakland police officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. It’s unclear how much they paid for the device, but Quan speculated the department received a federal grant.
Bell-Borden said she is not convinced police won’t use the machine. At the very least, she and other activists say its purchase sends a message.
“The machine that pop your eardrums and get you all discombobulated?” said fellow organizer Jabari Shaw. “They posing a threat.”