Po­lice buy mil­i­tary-style sonic-con­trol de­vice

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY JERRY SEPER AND CHUCK NEUBAUER

With the help of Home­land Se­cu­rity grants, po­lice de­part­ments na­tion­wide looking to sub­due un­ruly crowds and po­lit­i­cal pro­test­ers are pur­chas­ing a high-tech de­vice orig­i­nally used by the mil­i­tary to re­pel bat­tle­field in­sur­gents and So­mali pi­rates with pierc­ing noise ca­pa­ble of dam­ag­ing hear­ing.

Po­lice ac­knowl­edge that they de­ployed the so-called Long Range Acous­tic De­vices (LRADs) as a safe­guard at re­cent po­lit­i­cal con­ven­tions, protest­plagued in­ter­na­tional sum­mit meet­ings and this sum­mer’s volatile town-hall meet­ings on health care.

Of­fi­cers were cap­tured on video last month us­ing the de­vices against pro­test­ers at the Group of 20 sum­mit in Pittsburgh, caus­ing many to cover their ears or dis­perse to es­cape the shriek­ing sound.

San Diego-based Amer­i­can Tech­nol­ogy Corp. in­sists the de­vices it man­u­fac­tures and sells are not in­tended to be used as sonic weapons but rather to “in­flu­ence the be­hav­ior and gain com­pli­ance” from peo­ple.

But the com­pany stated in a Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion fil­ing in Septem­ber 2008 that the de­vice is “ca­pa­ble of suf- fi­cient acous­tic out­put to cause dam­age to hu­man hear­ing or hu­man health,” ex­press­ing con­cern that its mis­use could lead to law­suits.

It is that fact that has health and civil rights ad­vo­cates con­cerned that the de­vices could fall into un­trained hands and cause phys­i­cal harm.

“Po­lice should not be us­ing mil­i­tary weapons that are likely to cause per­ma­nent hear­ing loss on demon­stra­tors or any­one else,” said Vic Wal­czak, le­gal di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib- er­ties Union of Penn­syl­va­nia who ob­jected to the Pittsburgh po­lice’s use of the de­vice.

The dish-shaped de­vice gen­er­ate tones that are higher than the nor­mal hu­man thresh­old for pain, ac­cord­ing to the de­vice’s own data sheet. They can be aimed in a nar­row beam at spe­cific tar­gets with what the com­pany has de­scribed as “ex­treme ac­cu­racy.”

The Amer­i­can Tin­ni­tus As­so­ci­a­tion said Sept. 30 that pro­test­ers at the G-20 sum­mit were “acous­ti­cally as­saulted” with sound of over 140 deci­bels, which it de­scribed as “like the kind of sound pres­sure mem­bers of the armed ser­vices might face from an Im­pro­vised Ex­plo­sive De­vice (IED).”

The as­so­ci­a­tion said that at 130 to 140 deci­bels, dam­age to the ear can be in­stan­ta­neous, adding that the 145 to 151 range of the LRADS is “the kind of sound that can cause tin­ni­tus and hear­ing dam­age im­me­di­ately.” Tin­ni­tus is a con­di­tion that causes ring­ing in the ears, some­times per­ma­nently.

The Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health (NIH) has said per­ma­nent hear­ing loss can re­sult from sounds at about 110 to 120 deci­bels in short bursts or at 75 deci­bels with long pe­ri­ods of ex­po­sure. The Na­tional In­sti­tute on Deaf­ness and Other Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Dis­or­ders said reg­u­lar ex­po­sure of more than one minute of 110 deci­bels can re­sult in per­ma­nent hear­ing loss.

The U.S. mil­i­tary has used the de­vices suc­cess­fully since 2003 and they have been avail­able do-

mes­ti­cally since 2004.

The pur­chase of LRADs by po­lice agen­cies in the U.S. is ap­proved by the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment, mak­ing the de­part­ments el­i­gi­ble for mil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral grants. Fed­eral and state of­fi­cials said the grant money is turned over to the states, which de­cide how to spend it.

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials said they don’t have a list of the law en­force­ment agen­cies that have ob­tained LRADs through its grant pro­grams be­cause the money is ad­min­is­tered by the states.

Au­thor­i­ties in Cal­i­for nia, where at least five po­lice de­part­ments have ac­knowl­edged hav­ing the de­vices, said in­for­ma­tion about the lo­ca­tions of de­vices was not read­ily avail­able and it would take sev­eral days to com­pile.

Amer­i­can Tech­nol­ogy de­clined a re­quest from The Wash­ing­ton Times to iden­tify which po­lice de­part­ments have pur­chased the de­vices, but its most re­cent SEC fil­ings show sales are ris­ing. In the first nine month of 2009, sales of the de­vice gen­er­ated $12.8 mil­lion, a 74 per­cent in­crease over the same pe­riod in the pre­vi­ous year, the fil­ing stated.

The first ac­knowl­edged pub­lic use of the LRADs in the United States occurred at the G-20 meet­ing in Pittsburgh, dur­ing which po­lice ac­ti­vated one of the de­vices to dis­perse what they said were pro­test­ers seek­ing to march without a per- mit on the cen­ter.

The dish-shaped de­vice was mounted atop a mil­i­tary-style po­lice ve­hi­cle and the pierc­ing sound it emit­ted caused the pro­test­ers to stop, cover their ears and back up, at which time they faced non­lethal tear gas, rub­ber bul­lets and stun grenades.

“Other law en­force­ment agen­cies will be watch­ing to see how it was used,” Nate Harper, the Pittsburgh po­lice bureau chief, told re­porters at the time. “It served its pur­pose

city’s con­ven­tion well.”

More than 190 peo­ple were ar­rested dur ing the G-20 demon­stra­tions. No se­ri­ous in­juries were re­ported.

Amer­i­can Tech­nol­ogy spokesman Robert Put­nam said the com­pany’s LRAD sys­tem was “suc­cess­fully de­ployed” by Pittsburgh law en­force­ment agen­cies to “sup­por t their peace­keep­ing ef­forts at the G20 sum­mit,” but he de­nied that the de­vices are weapons.

“There’s no tr uth to the claims that th­ese de­vices are ‘death guns’ or ‘sonic can­nons,’ and the only peo­ple say­ing that are those who have not ex­pe­ri­enced the LRAD them­selves,” Mr. Put­nam said. “They are com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices and their point is to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple who are not in­ter­ested in com­ply­ing with law­ful or­ders.”

He said the LRAD en­abled law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties in Pittsburgh to “com­mu­ni­cate clearly” with an un­ruly crowd at a safe dis­tance to peace­fully re­solve an un­cer­tain sit­u­a­tion without in­jury or a loss of life on “both sides of the de­vice without re­sort­ing to the use of non­lethal or lethal weapons.” He said the de­vice was used to de­liver “crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, in­struc­tions and warn­ings.”

Mr. Put­nam said LRADs can cause dam­age to hear­ing if used im­prop­erly or “if you stand in front of it for sev­eral min­utes,” but he said Amer­i­can Tech­nol­ogy trains those who pur­chase the de­vices.

He said law en­force­ment per­son­nel have “full con­trol of the au­dio out­put through a promi­nently po­si­tioned vol­ume con­trol knob” and that the broad­casts can be “eas­ily and quickly ad­justed” based on their in­tended use.

“We give them in­struc­tions. We give them train­ing. We give them a man­ual,” he said. “It needs to be prop­erly used and we do what we can to ed­u­cate the peo­ple.”

When pressed about guard­ing against po­ten­tial harm­ful ef­fects, he said, “Put your fin­gers in your ears.”

The com­pany has said the de­vices are in­tended to be used for only a few sec­onds at a time, and that there should be no last­ing ef­fects from brief ex­po­sure. Mr. Put­nam said the de­vices can broad­cast up to 152 deci­bels at a dis­tance of three feet.

The de­vices, de­scribed by the com­pany as “non­lethal weapons,” are now in the pos­ses­sion of po­lice agen­cies across the coun­try.

“We think the use of the LRAD de­vices to gain con­trol of the pub­lic is in­ap­pro­pri­ate and ex­ces­sive,” said Kevin Keenan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the ACLU of San Diego. “They can cause se­vere dam­age to peo­ple’s hear­ing but, as im­por­tantly, they rep­re­sent a de­gree of po­lice con­trol that is bor­der­line sci­ence fic­tion.

“Do we want to live in a so­ci­ety where po­lice use mil­i­tarystyle weapons to sti­fle pub­lic dis­sent?” Mr. Keenan said. “The main ef­fect of hav­ing those weapons at pub­lic events is to chill peo­ple and chill free speech and free as­so­ci­a­tion.”


Au­ral as­sault force: An anti-glob­al­iza­tion pro­tester cov­ers his ears against a high-tech acous­tic de­vice used by po­lice to dis­perse un­ruly crowds in Pittsburgh last month dur­ing the Group of 20 sum­mit.

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