Arrests and escalating tension became routine at the longrunning Solidarity Sing Along protests at the Capitol rotunda in Madison after a judge left in place for now the state's authority to require a permit to protest when more than 20 demonstrators gather.
Many refused to get permits after the July ruling, and Capitol Police responded with arrests after trying futilely to shout warnings into bullhorns as a chorus of protesters drowned them out.
The noontime protests began in 2011 in reaction to Gov. Scott Walker’s move to sharply curtail union collective bargaining power.
In early September 2013, trying to break the standoff over the singalong arrests, a top legislative Democrat took both the singers and the Walker administration to task.
"I think the singers are in the wrong and should get a permit if they are going to protest on a continuous basis and they know they are going to be there," Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson of Milwaukee said Sept. 5, 2013 on "The Devil’s Advocates Radio show (WXXM-FM 92.1 in Madison). "I agree with many of their protests, I agree with where they’re coming from, but I think it’s a simple act ..."
Then Larson caught our attention with this:
"At the same time, I think that Walker is overstepping his bounds and is in the wrong by enforcing this to the extent that he is, in giving his police chief a raise in a shadowy way, and is going so far as to use paramilitary equipment to try and shut down the voices of the protesters. So both sides could take a step towards the middle."
We’re familiar with the controversy over the use of a ghost job to give the new Capitol Police chief a double-digit pay raise.
But Larson’s line about "paramilitary equipment" employed by the Capitol cops was a new one for us.
The phrase conjures up images of officers in riot gear and flak jackets, and advanced weaponry inside the Capitol, where -- we should note -- arrests have tapered off dramatically in September.
Larson’s office told us the "equipment" in question is one device that broadcasts a message warning protesters they are subject to arrest unless they disperse. The machine can emit a high-pitched noise, we were told.
With a bit of research, we found that protesters here and elsewhere call the machine a "sound cannon" or "sonic weapon." And with a bit more research, we learned that state officials term it an "advanced microphone."
Sounds like a job for the Truth-O-Meter.
The equipment in question is described by its manufacturer as the hand-held LRAD 100X "long range acoustic device."
It and its much larger cousins have come under scrutiny as crowd-control and communication mechanisms in clashes between police and protesters in Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, at the NATO summit in Chicago and elsewhere.
The device’s loudspeaker function cut through crowd noise and clearly communicate at up to 1,000 meters, its maker, San Diego-based LRAD Corporation, says.
Protesters who’ve labeled it a cannon have focused on the high-pitched, high-decibel "warning tone" the machine can emit. The continuous squeal sent street protesters scurrying away at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009.
Regarding the warning tone on the LRAD 100X model used at the Capitol, the company’s website says: "The warning tone provides a non-lethal deterrent, shapes behavior, and supports intent determination while preserving time for force escalation."
Translation: the tone can get people’s attention, get them to momentarily stop what they are doing or move out of the way.
At very close range (about 3 feet), the 100X’s warning tone puts out 137 decibels continuously. Brief exposure to noise at 120 dB (a nearby clap of thunder) or 140-190 dB (gunshot) can cause immediate hearing damage, according to the Dangerous Decibels project.
LRAD spokesman Robert Putnam told us that putting hands over your ears or stepping six feet out of the narrow sound field can remove the risk of injury.
But here’s the deal:
With the exception of a brief test, it appears that Capitol Police in Madison are not using the warning tone.
We watched dozens of YouTube videos taken by protesters, and talked to people who’ve observed most of the rallies, and could find evidence of only one rally at which police briefly sounded the continuous shrill warning tone. That was on July 18, 2013, which our research shows may have been the first day the police put the device into use.
A spokeswoman for the state agency that oversees the Capitol Police, told us the device is not being used "in that manner" but declined to discuss the July 18 video.
"It would be inaccurate to say that the (Capitol Police Department) uses the LRAD in a harmful manner – they use it make an announcement," state Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said. "There is a brief beeping right before the announcement starts ..."
On July 18, the video shows, uniformed officers accompanied by a man in street clothes walked the device in with the warning squeal activated.
"Watch out, there’s a sleeping child," an off-camera man says to them.
The warning tone sounded for at least 20 seconds and crowd reaction to it appeared minimal.
In Madison, a story in Isthmus, the Madison weekly newspaper and website, on the July 18 protest called the device a "loudspeaker."
On that day and others we observed on video, officers stationed themselves one floor above the ground floor of the rotunda where most singers gather. One officer holds up the 14-inch by 14-inch black speaker while another works the microphone and MP3 player containing the message to disperse. It did not appear that arrests were made on July 18.
Overall, then, the evidence strongly suggests that police are using the machine to get a message out before making arrests, not to drive people off with an annoying or threatening warning tone.
Paramilitary in nature?
Larson described the device as "paramilitary" in nature.
In recent years, as critics have complained about the militarization of police forces, the "paramilitary" label has been attached to a variety of gear, notably that used by military-style special weapons and tactics (SWAT) units. Things like body armor, shields, night vision goggles, armored vehicles.
The marketing of the acoustic devices suggests it fits into multiple categories, including military, paramilitary, and traditional law enforcement.
LRAD Corporation created it following the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole.
Since then, the military, companies -- and more than 100 law enforcement agencies including National Guard units -- have put them to use in diverse ways including fending off pirates, issuing storm warnings, serving warrants and for SWAT operations, riot control, hostage situations and crowd control at large events and protests.
In war zones, soldiers have mounted units to vehicles or used them at security checkpoints to communicate with civilians in order to avoid potentially lethal misunderstandings, said Putnam.
So there’s no doubt they have military and paramilitary applications, and are marketed as such.
Still, they can also be used purely as communications devices, as the Capitol Police in Madison appear to be doing.
The devices, we found, do not appear on a list of "paramilitary" equipment outlined in United Nations sanctions documents banning batons, clubs, riot sticks, body armor, riot shields and whips.
A detailed 2011 Canadian police review of law enforcement use of LRADs said they have been called both "weapons" and "devices." The review recommended that police factor in volume control and standoff distances when using the warning alarm function.
Larson said the Capitol Police force under Walker is "going so far as to use paramilitary equipment" at daily singalong protests in Madison.
There’s an element of truth to his claim, in that these devices have paramilitary and military uses.
But they also are used by a variety of non-military agencies for communication and mass notification, and Capitol Police appear to have used them predominantly, if not almost exclusively, to make sure protesters are clued in that arrests will follow if they don’t disperse.
Unlike in Pittsburgh and other cities where police have used the devices, we found no scenes here of stunned protesters scurrying away in the face of ear-splitting noise.
Our definition of Mostly False is that a statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
We think that fits here.
Editors note: This item was updated Sept. 19, 2013 to clarify in the first paragraph the judge's ruling.