By Mail Foreign Service
Critics have slammed American police officers after they trained an ear-splitting ‘spotlight of sound’ on G20 protesters in Pittsburgh last week.
The device can beam ‘unbearable’ alarm tones and voice commands to nearly two miles away. To a person standing three feet in front of it, it is louder than a jet engine.
The device, called a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), concentrates sound in a 30- or 60-degree cone.
It is about two feet square and mounted on a swivel such that one person can point it where it is needed.
The volume measures 140-150 decibels three feet away – louder than a jet engine – but dissipates with distance.
Robert Putnam, spokesman for the manufacturer, San Diego-based American Technology Corp., said it’s ‘like a big spotlight of sound that you can shine on people.’
During the Pittsburgh protests, police used the device to order demonstrators to disperse and to play a high-pitched ‘deterrent tone’ designed to drive people away.
It was the first time the device was used in a riot-control situation on U.S. soil, according to American Technology and police.
Those who heard it said authorities’ voice commands were clear and sounded as if they were coming from everywhere all at once. They described the ‘deterrent tone’ as unbearable.
Joel Kupferman, who was at Thursday’s march as a legal observer for the National Lawyer’s Guild, said he was overwhelmed by the tone and called it ‘overkill.’
‘When people were moving and they still continued to use it, it was an excessive use of weaponry,’ Kupferman said.
Witold Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, said the device is a military weapon capable of producing permanent hearing loss.
Catherine Palmer, director of audiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said 140 decibels can cause immediate hearing loss.
But there’s no way to know if anyone was exposed to sounds that loud without knowing how far away they were, she said.
Putnam and public safety officials said the complaints prove the device worked as designed.
‘You have to put your hands over your ears and cover them, and it’s difficult to throw stuff,’ said Ray DeMichiei, deputy director of the city’s emergency management agency.
A regional counterterror task force bought four of the devices from American Technology using $101,000 in federal Homeland Security funds, DeMichiei said.
Such devices also have military and commercial applications. Putnam said the primary purpose is to transmit specific orders loudly and clearly.
They have been used against protesters overseas, and police in New York threatened to use one during demonstrations near the Republican National Convention in 2004.
He said the city of San Diego uses them to instruct people to leave large sections of beach after festivals. It has also been used in SWAT operations.
Putnam said those complaining about the device have probably exposed themselves to sounds nearly as loud at rock concerts, and for longer periods of time. Walczak, the ACLU attorney, isn’t buying the analogy.
‘People don’t flee the front row of a rock concert. Why would they be fleeing here?’ Walczak asked. ‘Because it’s loud, it’s painfully loud.’