“Every police officer I talked to thought it worked famously,” said Mr. DeMichiei, who ordered the devices for Pittsburgh. “The bottom line is we could maintain order with the protesters without hurting them.
“It is designed to get people to do what police want. It makes them uncomfortable but does not hurt them,” he said, noting that Pittsburgh police had been trained to use the devices properly.
Mr. DeMichiei said his office first began looking at the devices when it learned the G-20 was coming to Pittsburgh and the city wanted a “less aggressive” means to control protesters.
He said the city and Alleghany Country each bought two - a large and a small device - for use by their SWAT teams. The devices were purchased with a $101,000 Homeland Security grant, approved by the state of Pennsylvania.
In addition to Pittsburgh, the devices previously were set up - but not used - by police in New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention, put in place last month during at least two health care town-hall meetings in the San Diego area and were at the ready for police in Miami in 2003 for a free-trade conference in that city.
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 military-style 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.”
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department had LRAD devices ready to control crowds at separate Republican and Democratic town-hall meetings last month - one in Spring Valley, Calif., hosted by Rep. Susan A. Davis, California Democrat, and at a later town-hall session in Vista, Calif., co-hosted by Reps. Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa, California Republicans.
The LRAD in San Diego was purchased for $31,000 by Sheriff William B. Gore with a Homeland Security grant “as a means to issue safety advisories, warnings and other emergency-related notifications,” according to a department bulletin.
Joe Kasper, spokesman for Mr. Hunter, said the congressman was not aware of any type of technology being used at the event but, in this particular case and in similar situations, he said it was “entirely reasonable to question the practicality of LRADs.
“Of course, the town halls that occurred across the country differ from the G-20 in size and scope, so there might be better reason to position LRADs,” Mr. Kasper said. “Law enforcement always stands to benefit from more advanced equipment but, regardless of the system, these tools should be utilized in a manner that is both safe and responsible.
“More importantly, there are certain systems that should only be used when absolutely necessary,” he said. “But in San Diego, where a couple hundred residents turned out to talk health care on a Saturday morning, it’s hard to understand why these resources would ever be needed.”
The devices were initially developed for the U.S. Navy after the USS Cole was attacked in October 2000 in the Yemeni port of Aden - killing 17 U.S. sailors and injuring 39 others. LRADs are now deployed by the U.S. Navy, Army, Marines and Coast Guard. In addition to keeping operators of small boats from approaching U.S. warships, they are being used to disperse hostile crowds and ward off or control potential enemy combatants with earsplitting noise in a directed beam.
Dubbed “the Sound of Force Protection” in a company brochure, the devices have been used by troops in Fallujah, a center of insurgency west of Baghdad, and other areas of central Iraq to deal with crowds in which lethal foes intermingle with civilians.