An LRAD being set up on the USNS Spearhead on April 5, 2016. Photo courtesy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda Dunford
The City of Phoenix recently decided to spend $95,000 on a new piece of gear for Phoenix Police, but what it is and what it does depends on who you ask.
Long Range Acoustic Devices, commonly referred to as LRADs, broke onto the scene in the early 2000s. LRAD is also the name for the most commonly used manufacturer of the devices.
Initially, they were hailed as long range communication devices that would allow the military to “communicate over large distances,” but later became available to local police departments.
Phoenix Police told the public, city council and press that it wanted the devices to help communicate with large crowds, such as a mass protest. However, that’s not exactly how the devices have been used in the time they’ve existed.
Activist groups see the LRAD as another extension of police force, often calling the device a “sound cannon” or a “sonic weapon.”
LRAD bills them as an alternative to “kinetic force.”
Anyone who has been near an LRAD knows the high pitch beeping sound it emits.
The first time US citizens became accustomed to the sound in the states was during the 2009 G20 protests in Pittsburgh.
The police used the device to try to disperse crowds, but due to how the device works, bystanders in the area ended up being affected.
Karen Piper was visiting a professor at Carnegie Mellon University at the time and sustained permanent hearing damage after the LRAD was used on the crowd. Her case was one of two that were part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.
The city ended up settling the suit for more than $200,000.
But LRADs have been in use for longer than that, just not on US soil.
They were first used in by American troops in Iraq in 2004.
Unlike many other non-lethal devices used by the military and law enforcement, like pepper spray or tear gas, there is little medical literature on the overall effects LRADs have on the human body. One thing is known for sure: They’ll really hurt your ears.
The volume of the sound emitted is determined solely by the officer operating the device which, due to its indiscriminate nature, could also affect nearby law enforcement.
Protesters at Standing Rock have shared stories of permanent damage from LRADs and the Massachusetts State Police even requires officers exposed to an LRAD to get mandatory medical attention, something that contradicts LRAD’s public statements on the safety of the technology, which have been that covering your ears with your hands is sufficient enough protection.
At full volume, the device can reach over 140 dB, about as loud as a jet engine.
LRADs are the tip of the iceberg, though, when it comes to sonic-based military and police technology.
There’s “The Mosquito”, which emits a high pitched sound only young people can hear and has been used to keep young kids from loitering. It has been met with mixed results.
Then there are the even more elusive infrasound devices which use a sound at such a low frequency that isn’t audible, but can cause discomfort or pain much like the infamous (but completely fake) so-called brown note.
Then there is also the case of the diplomats in Cuba being attacked by an unknown weapon that some now believe to be a new form of acoustic weapon.
So, is Phoenix Police purchasing a sound cannon or a speaker?
It might depend on which side of it you are on.
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