Pittsburgh cops using sound-blast against protesters—suit says it caused permanent hearing loss

Via John Perry Barlow and Matt Stoller comes this, news of the latest in crowd-control (and potentially, crowd-punishing) technology.

It’s called LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device), a perfectly innocent-sounding name. What it does is not so innocent, though it does involve sound:

The Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) is a distance hailing device and non-lethal crowd control weapon developed by LRAD Corporation to send messages, warnings and harmful, pain inducing tones over longer distances than normal loudspeakers. … LRAD systems are used by maritime, law enforcement, military and commercial security companies to send instructions and warnings over distances, and to force compliance.

The LRAD company, formerly American Technology Corporation, says it was designed for use in “short bursts at 300 metres” (about 1000 feet, or [corrected] more than three football fields), and that being within 100 meters can cause permanent ear damage.

Of course, the company says that blasting people at short range is not its recommended use (read, “it’s not our fault if abused”):

LRAD officials deny such common uses, claiming that the device is not a weapon, rather it is a “directed-sound communications system”, and that it can damage hearing at 15 metres (49 ft).[4]

Oddly, it seems that’s just what happened. From the ACLU last month (my emphasis):

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today [September 21] on behalf of Karen Piper, a bystander who suffered permanent hearing loss after Pittsburgh police deployed a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) against protestors during the 2009 G-20 Summit. An LRAD emits harmful, pain-inducing sounds over long distances. Developed for use by the military, LRAD technology had never before been used against US civilians.

“Police departments should not be using weapons built for the military on civilian protesters,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania[.] “As this case shows, the LRAD cannot be controlled to prevent serious harm to innocent bystanders. Collateral harm to innocents may be justifiable in wartime, but not to quell protesters who overturned a couple of trash dumpsters.”


So there are two issues. One is the use of a military weapon-like device against American citizens on U.S. soil. The other is the countenancing of “collateral damage” — a military concept for dead and injured innocents — as a defensible aspect of police behavior.

Here’s what happened to Ms. Piper:

On September 24, 2009, Piper, then a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, decided to observe G-20 protests in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood … She arrived at Arsenal Park around 10 a.m. and saw protestors calmly and peacefully milling around the area. After the protest began, Piper walked on the sidewalk a short distance from the marching protesters, in the company of other curiosity seekers and journalists. When Piper became concerned about rapidly increasing police activity, she tried to leave the area. As she was walking away, police officers activated, suddenly and without warning, an LRAD a short distance away from her. It emitted a continuous piercing sound lasting several minutes.

Piper immediately suffered intense pain as mucus discharged from her ear. She became nauseous and dizzy and developed a severe headache. Since then, Piper has suffered from tinnitus (ringing of the ears), barotrauma, left ear pain and fluid drainage, dizziness, and nausea. She still suffers from permanent nerve damage.

“The intensity of being hit at close range … is indescribable. The sound vibrates through you and causes pain throughout your body, not only in the ears. I thought I might die,” said Piper[.]

Did you notice the “lasting several minutes” part? Compare that with the “short bursts” description of its intended use. Seems that some people, when handed a pain-inducing device and permission to use it, just can’t stop themselves from dishing the goods in large, quasi-orgasmic doses. (Why do I say “quasi-orgasmic?” For a perfectly good reason: The purpose of torture is to give pleasure to the torturer. But you knew that.)

And naturally, all the regimes that really are regimes are buying them.

I might be tempted to add that the “rules of engagement” of the military and police are merging — but I resist. They merged more than a century ago.

Why do you care? Because LRAD looks like this; it’s the big black circle behind the uniformed police officer (this was taken at the GOP convention in 2004):

Photographer: Peter Bergin

And it looks like the NYPD has them. Occupy.

GP


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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