Sonic crowd control weapon creates controversy

Jessica Sarrach ‘24, News Editor

Some people describe the effects of the sound machine as the worst pain they have ever felt. Those who came in close contact with it were too dazed to run, they just fell down to the floor, many screaming in agony. The Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) weapon was used as a form of crowd control when police officers at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest felt that the crowd got too out of control.

The LRAD sound cannon can be used for two purposes: amplifying a human voice or emitting a sound decibel so loud, it can cause hearing damage and debilitating pain. The sound cannon, widely known as a sonic weapon, was initially created as a military device to communicate long distance with possible threats, and to be used as a warning alarm for emergency situations. Once it was discovered that the device could offer a non-lethal form of crowd control, some police departments started to use the sonic weapon to manage extremely rowdy protests and riots. Just because the device is non-lethal, though, does not mean that it does not have any long term side effects.

Audio engineer Marisa Ewing-Moody, an expert on the LRAD machine said, “Humans are regularly exposed to noise that can cause damage over time, but LRAD’s can cause lasting hearing damage in a matter of seconds.” LRADs offer a serious threat to people who come within 25 feet of contact. Hearing damage can bring about many hardships seeing as  humans rely heavily on their five senses, and while hearing damage and deafness are not lethal, they can greatly affect the quality and ease of one’s life.

On June 4, 2020 BLM supporters gathered in Portland streets to protest against the racial injustice that was George Floyd’s death. The protest was fast growing and garnered a large crown. Police officers at the protest claimed they felt that their police truck was being “threatened” by protesters and chose to react in a drastic measure. Officers brought out a LRAD machine and began using it on protesters.

The LRAD machine has the “ability to project messages up to 600 meters away, produce a maximum continuous output of 136 dB [decibels] at one meter away, and has the capacity to overcome 88 dB’s of background noise at 250 meters,” according to United States District Court of the Southern District of New York. This means that the sounds produced by the machine are likely to cause temporary hearing loss, and can result in permanent hearing damage if played at a close enough distance to someone. The LRAD machine at the Portland protest was used in close contact to the civilian population, leaving many protesters with temporary and permanent hearing damage.

The Portland community was in an uproar after the events of the June 4 protest. When police officers pulled out the LRAD machine to use as crowd control, the safety of all protesters was called into question. During the time of the LRAD crowd control, the Federal Bureau was under large scrutiny for their use of tear gas, and Portland city commissioners had called for a ban on the gas. The Portland police department response was to use LRAD as an alternative form of crowd control.

When asked about his opinion of the decibel and tear gas crowd control, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said, “I stand with those who say we should ban the use of tear gas. I would support the discontinuation of tear gas or CS gas provided there were viable options for dispersal that [do not] involve higher uses of force.” In his interview, Wheeler went on to say that he believes the LRAD machine is “worse” than tear gas, and can cause more damage. This brought a halt to any plans for further use of the LRAD machine in Portland.

The use of the LRAD machine brought mass outrage. Not only is the use of the LRAD machine unsafe, but the necessity of the machine in the protest was also called into question. With possible temporary hearing loss and long term hearing damage as side effects, it is safe to say the LRAD machine at the very least is not a harmless or victimless solution for crowd management, and could in fact be more dangerous then prior forms of civil control.

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