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P.A. system or ‘sonic weapon’? Cops’ use of military-grade speakers at Orlando protests prompts backlash

The 100X "portable hailing device" made by LRAD Corporation is seen in San Diego, California in 2011. Voice commands can be heard a 1/2 mile away. The device can also send a pulsing, non-verbal 3 kHz tone that is uncomfortable to the human ear and has been used to disperse large groups. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

As hundreds of people marched through the streets of downtown Orlando on June 5, a booming speaker attached to the back of a nearby pickup truck announced a warning.

“Orlando curfew will go into effect at 8 p.m.,” a voice rang out over the device. “Please give yourself ample time to get into your vehicles and clear the area before it goes into effect.”

Photos and video of the speaker soon began circulating on social media, some describing it as a “sonic weapon,” which had been used at past protests around the country to disperse crowds with its high-pitched blast.

The speaker was a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD. Often described by critics as an acoustic weapon, the device was created for the military after the attack on USS Cole in 2000. It has since been marketed to domestic law enforcement and public safety agencies as a super-powered bullhorn, capable of delivering commands during chaotic situations, like mass shootings and search-and-rescue operations.

Activists are wary of the device and said its use downtown during recent protests felt like a threat to escalate force.

The two primary law enforcement agencies involved in policing Orlando’s recent protests, the Orlando Police Department and Orange County Sheriff’s Office, both have LRADs. Both agencies said their devices were only used to make announcements.

However, a video recorded by a Sentinel reporter covering the protests June 4 appeared to capture officers using an LRAD’s “deterrent tone,” a loud chirping noise some say carries the risk of hearing loss. In the video, the agency’s square device  a model Genasys 100X  was visible atop an OPD vehicle.

Autumn Jones, spokeswoman for OPD, said the high-pitch alarm tone heard after the announcement is a function of the device that occurs automatically before the operator starts to speak, to get the crowd’s attention “that an announcement is forthcoming.”

When using the device at the demonstration June 4, officers set its volume to half power, Jones said.

Adam Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies technology and policy, said that even when used as a public announcement system, an LRAD may cause hearing damage to those standing within 15 to 20 feet of it.

Videos from the Orlando protest showed demonstrators walking alongside the pickup truck as authorities made announcements over the system.

“Everything I know about LRAD says that that is not safe,” Wandt said.

Matt, an activist with the Orlando Democratic Socialists who asked the Sentinel not to publish his last name for fear of harassment or retaliation by police, said he thought it was “totally unnecessary” to deploy such a system. A photo Matt posted of the device was one of several that was widely shared on social media.

“As somebody who’s been to … dozens of these protests and heard plenty of announcements made over loudspeakers from just cops with bull horns, squad cars, what have you, they have no difficulty communicating verbally to the crowd and being heard,” he said. ” … So from my perspective as a member of the public and somebody who’s out there … exercising my First Amendment right very peacefully, it appeared as a provocation.”

Responding to photos on social media of the device and questions from local lawmakers, the Orlando Police Department released a statement the following day, calling the device “essentially a high-end P.A. system, used to safely communicate critical instructions across a large crowd of people.”

While the agency uses the device, “(t)he equipment rumored on social media, including damage to hearing, involves a military-grade version of this equipment, which our agency is NOT using and does NOT own.”

But OPD later said images being widely shared online were not of its LRAD, but of the one used by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. Michelle Guido, an OCSO spokeswoman, said in an email that LRAD was used “for curfew announcements.”

That agency’s system, a model 500X, has the capability to produce a peak volume of 154 decibels. According to health and safety guidelines produced by Genasys, the company that created the system, no one should be within 75 meters in front of the device when its being used on its highest volume.

Genasys on its website describes the LRAD 500X as “(t)he U.S. Navy and U.S. Army’s acoustic hailing device (AHD) of choice for small vessels and vehicles,” and touts the device’s “(r)ugged, military tested construction.”

The New York Police Department is currently facing an excessive force lawsuit for its use of an LRAD during a 2014 protest over a grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

Michelle Guido, an OCSO spokeswoman, said deputies use their device only as a public-address system.

David Schnell, a vice president for Genasys, said that’s how most domestic police operate their LRADs, with some even asking the company to disable its deterrent sound function, which blares the alarm-like screeching noise. While he wouldn’t comment on a specific agency’s use of the device, he said operators should be mindful of its proximity to people in front of it.

The device does have a volume adjuster, making it possible to be used safely when people are at a closer distance than 75 meters, he said.

“You don’t want to be close to people if you don’t need to be,” he said.

The popularity of the devices among law enforcement reflects a trend over recent decades of military-style equipment being adopted by domestic police, Wandt said. Thanks to the federal 1033 Program, which allows law enforcement agencies to acquire surplus military equipment, many agencies have in their arsenal military-grade weapons, vehicles and other gear.

Because not enough research has been done on the effects of the LRAD to people at far range, Wandt doesn’t recommend that police use it at all, saying there are other announcement devices that perform just as well under most circumstances. Experts are worried that the type of sound waves an LRAD emits could do damage to a person’s brain, he said.

“LRADs use highly focused sound waves, almost like a laser,” Wandt said. “And just like a sonic boom could break glass windows, it is possible that LRAD, if someone is in front of it, could cause some irritation or damage to the brain. … We simply do not know the answer to this yet.”

Schnell called that description “not factually accurate” and said there’s nothing inherent to the technology that makes an LRAD more dangerous than any other loud speaker. He also disputed its description by some as a “weapon” that uses frequencies to which human ears are most sensitive.

“Our systems … put out a sound within the human hearing spectrum. They are optimized for human hearing,” Schnell said. ” … Protecting the human hearing, we’re very cognizant of that.”

TJ Legacy Cole, an Orlando community activist who attended the downtown demonstrations and later saw photos of the device, said it “sends the wrong message” to use it in a crowd of protesters.

“I don’t believe it’s necessary for them to have such a machine, whether it’s military grade or whether it’s the Walmart Great Value brand,” he said.


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