Last week, media reports described a city “under siege” as the RCMP hunted for a man who killed three police officers and injured two others in Moncton, New Brunswick. The heavily armed police force deployed armoured vehicles, helicopters, and a robot to find the gunman—while officers patrolled the streets in full-combat uniform. All of this military gear brought back unfortunate memories of the clash between Mi’kmaq protesters and heavily armed New Brunswick RCMP officers, snipers, and private police forces that rocked the province late last year.
If you’re confused as to when the RCMP started to operate like the Canadian Armed Forces, you probably haven’t realized yet that Canadian police have been following the lead of the US in militarizing their equipment and intervention tactics.
This is happening all over the country. Two weeks ago, the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) announced its intention to purchase two sound cannons to be used during protests. The devices would give police officers the ability to beam painful tones and yell out orders over a distance of up to one kilometre, thanks to an amplifying system that can reach 143 decibels (exposure beyond 140dB can cause permanent damage to eardrums).
If the idea of the police blasting noise at people at the same level as a jet engine doesn’t raise your suspicions, consider that the device—the Long Range Acoustic Device or LRAD, as its official name goes—was developed by a private defence company after the US destroyer USS Cole was attacked by Somali pirates off the coast of Yemen in 2000.
That’s right: Montreal police essentially consider protesters dangerous enough to use a weapon that was developed in order to fight AK-47-wielding hostage takers that are most likely high on khat, and very low on cash.
To be fair, the SPVM has pledged not to use the sound cannons alert function, which consists of blasting high-pitched, unbearable noises meant to make everyone run away. They said they’ll only use the cannons amplifying system to communicate with protesters. But this also raises questions as to why the cops would bother spending $18,000 on devices they will only use for half of their functions.
The SPVM isn’t the first police force to have acquired the LRAD. Back, in 2010, Toronto police were very eager to show off their new sonic weapon during the G20 summit, but the Ontario Superior Court ruled the alert function couldn’t be used. The RCMP, which uses sound cannons for marine operations, said to the Globe and Mail at the time that they didn’t support the use of the LRAD as a crowd-control tool.
The sound cannon is just one of the many examples that reveal the worrisome tendency among Canadian police forces to upgrade their fleets and equipment to military standards. In the past four years, Ottawa, York, Ont, Quebec City and Montreal have all acquired Tactical Armoured Vehicles (TAV), aka urban tanks.
More worrisome is the “Cougars for cops” program that unfortunately has nothing to do with matching young police officers with middle-aged women—and more to do with surplus Cougar tanks being transferred by the Canadian Armed Forces to local municipal police and RCMP forces. New Glasgow, a town of about 9,500 people in Nova Scotia, got a tank that was previously used in the Balkans and Somalia. In British Columbia, the RCMP said they would parade their own surplus tanks in the streets even if there’s no need for it, just to get the public used to them and train officers for urban combat. Feel safe yet?
Violent crime has been steadily decreasing in large Canadian cities in the past few years, including in Vancouver, and the latest terrorist incidents on Canadian soil have caused no casualties—unless you count the murder attempt on Pauline Marois in 2012, which killed one—so I’m not quite sure what kind of urban combat Canadians should be preparing for.
But police forces seem to think differently. In 2008, Montreal’s SPVM sought the help of the Canadian Armed Forces after the riots in Montreal North revealed they were unprepared to deal with this type of event. It’s unclear why the SPVM chose to seek advice from the army rather than collaborate with other police forces on the continent that have had to deal with riots in recent years—unclear, but not surprising.
Armed forces around the world have been increasingly consulted for their expertise in urban conflict. Israel’s experience in the Palestinian territories is probably the most authoritative, and the US have lots to say about their time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s not just national armed forces either; in fact private defense companies are the ones who benefit the most through consulting services and selling police forces equipment that was initially designed for war.
Their advice is in great demand for such matters as riot control, counter-terrorism, and the war on drugs, and has been applied so vehemently that anti-riot police and SWAT teams across the continents now pretty much look and act like soldiers. Regular policing hasn’t been spared—tasers, closed-circuit televisions, and shoot-to-kill policies are just some of the new items on the list of military-like equipment and tactics that will continue to grow as long as police forces keep on militarizing.
The official rhetoric used to justify such purchases is that police forces should be prepared for anything, but there seems to be no limit to the level of aggression they’re trying to foresee. Some of the arguments used are frankly questionable.
“I don’t see us as militarizing police; I see us as keeping abreast with society. And we are a gun-crazy society,” former Los Angeles police chief William Bratton said a few years back. If the US wants to keep playing the game of escalating gun violence, it’s up to them, but Canada can’t exactly be called “gun-crazy,” so why should we do the same?
Militarizing our police forces means big bucks for the companies that manufacture equipment and provide consulting services. The global homeland security and public safety market is expected to grow from $305 billion in 2011 to $546 billion by 2022, with more than half of the playing field dominated by American companies. The US sector will double between 2009 and 2018, that’s probably more than any other industry, especially during a time of recession.
The best way for these companies to enter national markets is to get contracts during large international events, which are required by organizing committees and participating nations to provide a high level of security—think G8 and G20 summit, the Olympics, or the World Cup. We know this all too well; the security operation around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics ended up costing close to $1 billion a far cry from the $175 million originally predicted. Security costs for the 2010 G8 and G20 summits, when Toronto police wanted to show off their sound cannon, also cost $1 billion.
“Security, especially for these kind of mass public events… is big business. There's a lot of money to be made, and very much of this militaristic-type security is provided by private corporations,” said Michael Kempa, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.
Standards are raised at each event and millions get spent on equipment and training. The upcoming soccer World Cup in Brazil will be no exception; the government has pledged $900 million to ensure the event will be “one of the most protected sports events in history.” On top of purchasing badass toys such as a RoboCop-like suit or the elite squad, US-designed military robots, and glasses with face-recognition cameras, Brazil police have been trained by Israeli security and intelligence experts among others. A total of 170,000 police officers, military soldiers and private security agents will be deployed specifically for World Cup security.
Of course, if these experts stopped to think for a second, they might realize that Brazil’s police are one of the most violent in the world, and that all this influx of cash, training, and equipment into local police forces for a month-long event might very well backfire on the local population in the near future. The security apparatus will likely stay in place beyond the World Cup and Olympics, and will become the new standard for urban security around the world.