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DHS helps local police buy military-style sonic devices
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, protest-plagued international summit meetings and this summer’s volatile town hall meetings on health care.
Officers were captured last week on video 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 sufficient acoustic output to cause damage to human hearing or human health,” expressing concern that its misuse could lead to lawsuits.
• To hear the device being used in Pittsburgh in a YouTube video, click here.
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 Liberties 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 Wednesday 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 domestically 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.
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