Thursday, October 1, 2009

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.

Authorities in California, 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 permit on the city’s convention 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 well.”

More than 190 people were arrested during 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 “support their peacekeeping efforts at the G-20 summit,” but he denied that the devices are weapons.

“There’s no truth 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.

Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s deputy director of emergency management and homeland security, said he thought the devices worked well without hurting anyone.

“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.

The devices can broadcast sound files containing warning messages or can be used with electronic translating devices for what amounts to “narrowcasting,” in which specific groups are targeted.

If crowds or potential foes don’t respond to the verbal messages, company records show that the LRADs can direct a high-pitched, piercing tone with a tight beam. Navy News has described the devices as being “louder than a jet engine,” saying they overwhelm their targets with “sound so loud they hear it inside their heads.”

LRADs also have been used by cruise ships and freighters to repel attacking pirates off the coast of Somalia, using narrow-beam sound waves with great clarity at 150 decibels - about 50 times the human threshold of pain - and short bursts of “intense acoustic energy” that can incapacitate people within 1,000 feet of the device.

The Department of Homeland Security also has put the LRAD technology to work in securing the nation’s borders, according to its Web page, providing the devices to the U.S. Border Patrol to give agents the “ability to communicate with persons at a long distance” and to do so in any language.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Jenny L. Burke said CBP has tested the LRAD but has not seen that the device is a highly effective tool for securing the border in most operational situations encountered. At this time, she said, the agency is not looking at expanding its use.

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