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What is it like when the police use an LRAD ‘sound cannon’ to disperse a crowd?

By: - November 26, 2018 11:41 am

An LRAD mounted to the top of a New York Police Department humvee that is a part of the department’s Disorder Control Unit.

Journalist Andrew Neef was there the first time a Long Range Acoustic Device, commonly referred to as an LRAD, was ever used on US soil.

“It felt like my head was going to pop,” Neef recalled.

Neef was covering the Pittsburgh G20 protests of 2009 when the police decided to turn on their LRAD to try and disperse the crowd. Neef’s footage of it being used has been widely circulated online.

The company who makes the devices, also called LRAD, even used his footage for promotional material. Neef sued, since the footage belonged to him and was countersued for using the term LRAD in his video.

The company eventually removed the video from its promotional material.

The Phoenix Police department recently won approval to purchase two of the same type of LRAD used in Pittsburgh. They told the public they intend to use it for “communication” with large crowds and have no intention of “weaponizing” the device.

Tempe Police have had one since 2016 and stated they only use the device to communicate with large crowds. When pushed about if they have policies in place for it to not be used to disperse crowds, the Mirror did not get an answer.

Phoenix Police Department is still finalizing its policies on how to use the equipment, and a spokesperson for Tempe PD said it has no formal written policy on how the LRAD is deployed or used.

Yesterday, an LRAD device was used by the United States Border Patrol near Tijuana in conjunction with tear gas and other non-lethal weapons as migrants and protesters clashed with authorities.

But how exactly does it feel to be on the receiving end of an LRAD?

‘It’s like that movie Scanners’

Neef is a journalist for the non-profit online news outlet Unicorn Riot.

The group is known to cover high profile protests such as those in Ferguson and Standing Rock.

Neef is no stranger to non-lethal weapons used by police to disperse crowds, but in 2009, he and others were in for a surprise.

“It was definitely a shock when it was used on us,” Neef said. He had been following protesters all day in Pittsburgh and had heard rumors about some new device police had.

They had already been using the LRAD to speak to the crowd, and everyone noticed how much louder it was then a bullhorn.

“It was like the voice of God coming down to your ear,” Neef said of how loud the speaker felt when being used to issue commands.

Then, suddenly and without warning, police began sending out a pulsating sound that was well over 100 dB.

“Your brain feels like it’s vibrating in a bowl of jelly on the table,” Neef said. He plugged his right ear with a finger while his left held his camera steady, meaning his left ear was exposed to the pulsating tone.

He compared the sensation to the film “Scanners,” in which psychics use their powers to cause pain in the brains of others, often with explosive results.

But Pittsburgh wouldn’t be the only place Neef would be exposed to the deafening tones.

In Standing Rock, protesters there were well aware of the technology, and many came prepared.

Ear plugs are a good way to block out the noise, Neef said.

Neef experiences oddities in his hearing occasionally, but he can’t for sure say if the LRADs are to blame. After all, he has been exposed to a litany of devices used to disperse crowds that are also known to cause hearing damage.

Phoenix Police say they don’t intend to use the device over 113 dB. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the longest anyone should be exposed to a noise of that level without ear protection is 45 seconds.

The LRAD commonly used by law enforcement across the country and the one used at the US border can go as loud as 140 dB, which OSHA recommends you be exposed to for less than a second or you could sustain permanent hearing damage.

Neef plans to continue covering protests and contentious situations as a member of the media, but has made sure to keep ear plugs handy.

“You basically have to have the same equipment as SWAT guys to stay safe covering these things now,” Neef lamented.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.