Acoustic warning speakers used by police causing controversy

By Bradley J. Fikes
North County Times

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Deterring pirates with blasts of ear-splitting sound got American Technology Corp. a lot of welcome attention. But when the company's acoustic warning speakers are deployed by law enforcement agencies, it gets a less favorable reception.

The product, called a Long Range Acoustical Device directionally broadcasts sound and spoken instructions at long distances. At close range, it can also broadcast incapacitating blasts of earsplitting noise.

Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say the device could intimidate people from exercising their right to free speech at protests. And some of those attending events where the devices were present say they were overkill.

For its part, American Technology Company says the device is not a weapon, and it gives law enforcement an efficient means of communicating with friend, foe and unknown.

However, because of its ability to inflict intense discomfort, the LRAD is often referred to as a non-lethal weapon. So its use by law enforcement agencies at protests and routine public meetings has become contentious.

Even its mere presence at recent town hall meetings in San Diego County sparked indignant protests.

The publicity was positive four years ago, when a cruise ship successfully used an LRAD against Somali pirates, a scenario that has been repeated with other pirates. The devices have also been used in Iraq by various branches of the U.S. military to communicate with crowds and intimidate enemies.

"It's a highly effective tool to communicate," said Robert Putnam, the company's spokesman.

The device clearly projects voice and audio signals a long distance, while conventional bullhorns may be hard to understand, Putnam said. And while its use against enemies gets most of the publicity, the device also helps public safety officers protect the public.

"Bullhorns don't cut it in large crowd applications," Putnam said. "LRAD is very effective in doing that. It doesn't hurt anybody and they can understand what's being asked of them."

In an emergency, for example, an LRAD can quickly dispel confusion and tell people what's going on and what they need to do to be safe, Putnam said.

Despite the negative publicity, sales of the device keep climbing. On Tuesday, American Technology announced it had received a $1.6 million order for its LRAD 500X model from the Army Reserves. That follows another $1.6 million order from the Army Reserves, announced Oct. 20. The devices cost roughly $20,000 to $30,000 each, depending on the model.

On Oct. 22, the company announced receiving a $620,000 order from the People's Republic of China for its law enforcement agencies. The company was criticized for that sale because it supported a repressive regime.

Profitability has been more elusive than sales. American Technology reported net income in the quarter ended June 30 of $136,000, which rounds to 0 cents per share. In the same quarter a year ago, the company lost $1.52 million, or 5 cents per share.

Critics sound off

Last week, a Canadian civil liberties group criticized the Vancouver Police Department for buying an LRAD. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association said the LRAD, which it called a "sonic gun," was intended for crowd control during the 2010 Winter Olympics there.

The criticism was noted in several articles in the Canadian press. Police quoted in the articles said the device was purchased for generic communication needs, such as for natural disasters, and not specifically as a crowd control device.

Putnam said the LRAD is not a weapon, despite media accounts describing it as such.

"If you're going to (consider) a deterrent tone as a weapon, then I would say police sirens and fire sirens are weapons, too," Putnam said. "Let's put that in someone's neighborhood for five minutes and see what people think about that. Is that a weapon?"

Another controversy arose after LRADs were used to disperse protesters at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh in late September. Putnam took to the pages of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in an Oct. 27 rebuttal to an opinion column characterizing the devices as "military-style weapons."

"While LRAD can broadcast very loudly, (up to 152 decibels at 1 meter away), law enforcement personnel are trained in its proper use and have full control of the audio output through a prominently positioned volume control knob," Putnam wrote in his rebuttal. "LRAD's broadcasts can be easily and quickly adjusted based on situational use. Also, sound pressure levels drop off very quickly over distance."

Closer to home, the San Diego Sheriff's Department brought the devices to town hall meetings recently hosted by Darrell Issa, a Vista Republican, and by Susan Davis, a San Diego Democrat.

While the devices weren't used, some of those attending the town halls said they were infuriated at the apparent implication that they might be dangerous. They said the devices could cause permanent harm to innocent people. Jay LaSuer, a candidate for sheriff against incumbent Bill Gore, has criticized their use.

The devices' presence at the town halls was publicized in a Sept. 11 article on the Web site of East County magazine, and were discussed on the programs of local talk show hosts Rick Amato and Rick Roberts.

The Washington Times published an Oct. 1 article about the devices' deployment at the G-20 summit and their purchase by domestic law enforcement agencies with grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

Secret uses?

Inevitably, any high-tech device used by the military gives rise to stories about clandestine applications. With LRAD, the stories center on its unusually tight, directional focus. LRADs can deliver a narrow beam of sound to one person, while people close by hear nothing.

According to some published accounts, including one on the military news site Strategy Page, LRAD's ability to single out people has been used by the military for psychological warfare against enemy forces in Iraq.

"Islamic terrorists tend to be superstitious and, of course, very religious. LRAD can put the 'word of God' into their heads," stated the Strategy Page article. "If God, in the form of a voice that only you can hear, tells you to surrender, or run away, what are you gonna do?"

A Dec. 21, 2007 article in Wired magazine about the so-called "voice of God weapon," called it "the military's equivalent of an urban myth," although it stopped short of calling the story a hoax.

More recently, Wired reported that LRAD was used in September to pressure ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya when he was holed in Brazil's embassy in Tegulcigalpa.

Copyright 2009 North County Times

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