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Greensboro Police to Use Sound Device With Complicated History

Detractors call it a sound cannon, a weapon of war that can be abused to injure protesters and interfere with First Amendment rights.

(TNS) - The Greensboro, N.C., Police Department soon will be using a piece of equipment that has a controversial reputation.

A Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, was purchased by the department in September. Greensboro police say they will use it to search for missing people, serve high-risk warrants, communicate with people barricaded in buildings and talk to crowds. The police department bought this device for $13,000, using money from the department’s operating budget.

LRADs has been used by other law enforcement agencies in the United States with mixed results. Most notably it was used in Pittsburgh in September 2009 at the G-20 economic summit. One woman sued for hearing loss and received a settlement from the city, according to published reports.

Supporters call the LRAD a vital communications device. Detractors call it a sound cannon, a weapon of war that can be abused to injure protesters and interfere with First Amendment rights.

Greensboro Police Chief Wayne Scott said he is well aware of the potential hazards of the device and has no intention of using the equipment that way.

“I’ve seen what other agencies have done, and that’s solidified our opinion that we would not like to do that,” Scott said, without naming specific law enforcement agencies. “We just plan to use it as a communication device.”

Police agencies maintain that the LRAD is an improvement upon the public address systems on patrol cars because its messages can be heard over a greater distance. It also can play recorded messages.

“It’s crystal clear,” said Sgt. J.E. Armstrong, who worked to buy the device. “Most PA systems on the patrol cars are distorted.”

Armstrong said the main reason the police department wanted to buy the LRAD was safety. It wants to be able to communicate safely with people in high-risk situations, as well as locate people in danger.

Using the device to find missing people, particularly children, has been a main selling point for law enforcement agencies across the country. That feature also was touted in a public demonstration by Greensboro police.

What’s the use?

An Internet search for the LRAD’s use in finding missing people produced 2,600 returns, but of that number there were no articles detailing the successful location of people by using this device.

An LRAD can broadcast sound for up to 1,000 meters, according to information from LRAD Corp., a San Diego-based company that sold the device to Greensboro police.

There are several different versions of the LRAD. An agency that uses the same model that will be used by Greensboro is the police department of Sacramento, Calif., said Karen Bowling, LRAD Corp.’s director of marketing.

A spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department, Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, said its LRAD is used by his department’s marine and SWAT units.

“It cuts through a crowd and is much more reliable than a PA,” Heinlein said. “It’s portable and is very simple to operate.”

Heinlein said the LRAD is a nonlethal device that can help de-escalate situations. The SWAT team uses it to set up from a distance in standoffs and to give orders or announcements. The marine unit uses it when trying to stop a boat on the water.

“Officers use prerecorded messages on vessel stops,” Heinlein said.

The LRAD also has automated tones that can be used, which Heinlein said Sacramento police use to warn swimmers and boaters about hazards.

Although the LRAD has been called a weapon by some people, Heinlein said his department doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s not a weapon at all,” he said. “To be able to communicate with people is the purpose of the device.”

Scott said his department will use the tones only for short bursts and would likely use them very sparingly.

“We want to use it to communicate,” he said. “We evaluated (other agencies’) complaints. Most used the tone in a way that forced the crowd to move in one way.”

In a video of Pittsburgh’s use of an LRAD at the G-20, a long, piercing tone from an LRAD mounted on an armored vehicle sends protesters running. Some people hold their hands over their ears as police in riot gear advance to push back the crowd.

A message broadcast from the vehicle orders the crowd to leave a city street.

Greensboro police also created a demonstration video.

Policy to be set on use

Greensboro police are still developing a policy on the LRAD’s use, including how it will be used and by whom.

Until that policy is completed, the department will not use the device in the field, Scott said.

The chief said that he has seen one draft of the policy and that a final version likely will be completed in late January.

The completed policy likely will not state a maximum decibel level for the device, Scott said.

The LRAD model that will be used by Greensboro has the capability to go from zero to 143 decibels. By contrast, a digital audio player at maximum volume might exceed 100 decibels.

“We will use due caution with it,” Scott said.

Permitted uses for the LRAD include asking a crowd to move to another area before the device is used, he said.

The draft policy is under review by the department’s command staff, which is comprised of 22 people, including Jim Clark, the department’s attorney, who serves as an adviser.

“In that role, he basically provides input and review on the legal parameters of the operations of the department,” city spokesman Donnie Turlington said of Clark. “Where the LRAD system is concerned, the police attorney will review the operational policy that is developed by the department and determine if adjustments need to be made from a legal standpoint.”

Turlington said the review will determine whether the policy meets state law and city ordinances and whether it complies with current police policies.

Under the city’s policy, the LRAD would be exempt from the city noise ordinance because it is considered an emergency measure to restore public safety or to protect people or property from danger or potential danger.

Decibel damage

Messages used on the LRAD can be stored on an MP3 player, according to information from the device’s manufacturer, and those recordings would be subject to public-records laws, Greensboro police spokeswoman Susan Danielsen said.

The maximum volume level of the LRAD that Greensboro plans to use is a concern for Dr. Rebecca Pugh, an audiologist with Cone Health. She said it could cause permanent hearing damage.

“Even being exposed for five minutes at 105 decibels would damage your hearing,” Pugh said. “A tractor or a leaf blower is at 106 decibels.”

She said a siren on an emergency vehicle is about 115 decibels.

“Anything over 85 decibels is considered dangerous,” Pugh said. “If you’re exposed to it for more than eight hours, you begin to have hearing damage. OSHA says if you’re (exposed to that volume) for up to 90 minutes, then you need to use ear protection.”

She said that volume level compares to heavy traffic noises.

Pugh said police will have to factor in the noises surrounding their purpose for using the LRAD.

“If you have a riot, it will be loud. The machine will have to be loud to go over it,” she said. “I can see where it has its place, and it will be very helpful, but it can be harmful. You will have to weigh the risks and gains.”

Pugh said the decibel level used will depend on where the device is placed and how long it’s used, but she hoped it wouldn’t be broadcast at higher than 85 decibels.

Many uses

Karen Bowling, the director of marketing for the LRAD Corp., said that without prior consent she could not disclose if other law enforcement agencies in North Carolina use the device.

However, police in Seattle, Houston and Chattanooga, Tenn., use different versions of the LRAD, Bowling said. It also is used outside the United States.

“It’s used by colleges and universities, EMS, law enforcement, anybody who might need to use crowd control,” she said. “It’s been used in tsunamis, in Japan, in the military, emergency management.”

Bowling said there have been no lawsuits filed against the company in connection with the device or its use.

Mike Meno, the communications director for ACLU of North Carolina, said he is wary of Greensboro’s acquiring the device.

“It’s always concerning when weapons of war are used on our own communities,” Meno said. “The police should be very clear on how they plan to use it. That abuse can result in costly litigation.”

He said he particularly was concerned about the high-frequency tones LRAD can produce.

“They can deter peaceful rallies,” he said. “That can be a First Amendment concern.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, the director of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, said he is unfamiliar with the LRAD. He said he does not have a problem with general use of the device.

“I have no issues as an instrument, as a mechanism to amplify sound, just as I have no issues with a Greensboro officer carrying a gun,” Johnson said. “I continue to put emphasis on the abuse of police power.”

Greensboro Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said she is in favor of the LRAD system. She said she’s very concerned about missing children and senior citizens, as well as the need to communicate with people who barricade themselves in buildings. She also said she supports the LRAD being used for protests, if needed.

“I’m OK with the loudness for a few minutes if it helps,” Johnson said.

District 1 City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower also voiced support.

“When you’re looking for a senior citizen or a juvenile, that’s a serious situation. This is a good opportunity to try something and it puts us at an advantage,” Hightower said. “Depending on the usage, we will have to trust the police.

“I think it will help more than it will hurt, especially with the way the world is going. It’s always good to have a tool in your box.”


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