The Crazy New Weapon The Military Gave the Police to Disperse Protestors

December 21st 2014

Alex Mierjeski

In the still-developing fallout from a grand jury’s decision not to indict the New York police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, protests across the country have exploded.

Demonstrators in New York City staged “die-ins,” and teeming crowds blocked off the great steel, iron, and stone arteries that connect the city’s boroughs.

As protesters have become energetic, police have attempted to mitigate deep-seeded anger and stymie disruptive gatherings. One device, however, has recently come under an especially critical light.

On December 5th, as protesters in New York’s Midtown neighborhood blocked traffic around the intersection of 58th St. and Madison Ave., the NYPD deployed a military-grade sonic weapon known as Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD to disperse the crowd. The effects of the device and the NYPD’s authority and guidelines to deploy it have since come under scrutiny from protesters, journalists, and national legal groups.

Manufactured by the LRAD Corporation, the devices can be used for mass communication, but they can also emit blasts of “non-lethal” sound waves, capable of transmitting ambient noise with decibel levels of 162 up to 5.5 miles away. For context, the general threshold for sonic pain in humans is around 130dBs, and a normal conversation hovers around 60dBs. These “deterrent” tones have a more or less nonspecific target range, affecting everyone in its broad sonic path. Opponents have pointed out that this can include not just targeted protesters, but also journalists and bystanders. As Gizmodo notes, anyone standing within 15 meters can experience permanent hearing loss.

VICE News, who reported on the growing controversy over the use of the devices, spoke to a photojournalist who was in the path of a LRAD earlier this month in Midtown. “It feels like your eardrums are beating out of your head,” said Shay Horse. “It makes the side of your body that you’ve been hit on feel numb and that your sinuses are inflamed. I felt like I had blood coming out of my orifices. I heard the ringing for about a week.”

Developed after the bombing of the USS Cole in a Yemen port in 2000, LRAD devices have had a long history of use in military and naval settings, and they are also used on airfields and aircraft to deter potentially dangerous wildlife interference.

But alarmingly, they are popping up more and more in civilian settings. From Pittsburgh’s G20 protests in 2009, to Zuccotti Park protests during Occupy Wall Street in 2011, to the protests over Detroit’s water shut-off earlier this year, LRAD deployment has played either a practical, innocuous role as a loudspeaker like in Zuccotti Park, or a more malevolent role, as it has in recent months.

Earlier this summer in Ferguson, MO., when a shrill, piercing siren split the tense night air, demonstrators at first didn’t know what to make of the ear-splitting ringing. “What was THAT?” a VOX headline read. But it wasn’t necessarily surprising. The use of LRADs as a dispersal technique fit neatly into place in the larger trend of an absurdly militaristic police response to protests there that, in many ways, has since shaped the larger national conversation emerging around appropriate police responses both on the sidewalk and in the street.

Nevertheless, it is alarming that the tactics and tools that carry such malicious potential as permanent hearing loss are, on the one hand, available for local police departments, but also treated lightly enough that they can be used to chase off otherwise harmless rabble-rousers blocking Midtown traffic in the middle of the night.

The NYPD, which bought two of the $35,000 LRADs in the run up to 2004’s Republican National Convention, has defended the use, saying they are only used for announcements, not to disperse people with shrill noise. But videos across the web suggest otherwise, and lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild sent a letter to police commissioner Bill Bratton requesting the department stop using the LRADs until they were fully tested, regulated with public guidelines, and in the hands of properly trained officers. The lawyers filed Freedom of Information requests in 2011 and 2012 with the New York Civil Liberties Union, but never were given any information pertaining to the regulations used by police, suggesting none may even exist.

The alarm surrounding police militarization in the wake of protests against race relations and police brutality is real and understandable after pictures of armored vehicles and heavily armed officers engulfed in clouds of tear gas flooded the nation’s consciousness, looking more akin to special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for protesters perhaps still nursing headaches and ringing ears, it is uniquely relevant. Along with tear gas, LRAD deployment appears to be among the first tangible results of eager police departments putting their bristling stockrooms of advanced weaponry to use. The hopeful stance promises a swift and decisive recourse, but what the future actually holds is anyone’s guess.

To learn more about how police should effectively handle public protests, click here