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Public Safety Commission discusses APD’s protest response

Wednesday, August 3, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Public Safety Commission heard from the Austin Police Department Monday about how it responds to protests, including how it uses the LRAD, a powerful speaker that some fear could damage protesters’ and police officers’ hearing.

APD Commander Corey Wroblewski described the basics of APD’s protest response in his presentation. How the police department responds to protests – or if it responds at all – depends on the size of the protest and the potential for violence, he said. 

A special response team of officers with extra protest training are first on the scene for protests. For larger demonstrations, APD activates its mobile field force. Any officer could participate in MFF if called upon, and all officers have some level of training on how to handle mass gatherings.

APD’s priorities during demonstrations include (in order of importance) preserving life and safety, “incident stabilization,” protection of property and “societal restoration.”

In cases where the threat of violence may be present, officers can carry batons, pepper spray and shields. They can also carry shotguns loaded with 40 mm foam batons, which APD now uses instead of the so-called “less lethal” lead beanbag rounds. During the summer 2020 protests over police brutality and racism, demonstrators were seriously injured by lead beanbag rounds, sending at least 19 to the hospital. As a result, the city has paid victims millions of dollars in legal settlements, and 19 police officers face criminal charges for using beanbag rounds improperly. 

The foam baton rounds are considered safer and more accurate, Wroblewski said, decreasing the odds of serious injury by hitting people’s heads, for example.

Much of the discussion centered around the use of the LRAD, or long-range acoustic device, during protests. The high-powered speaker, which can emit sound loud enough to permanently damage hearing, has stirred concerns about potential harm to protesters and officers, as The Austin Chronicle recently reported

Wroblewski tried to dispel these concerns. “This device is not used as a weapon,” he said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.” 

The LRAD is typically used during SWAT operations or when officers are carrying out search warrants, Wroblewski explained. But sometimes, LRAD is used during protests to communicate messages, such as a curfew order, to crowds. “Our traditional PA device in the patrol cars is inadequate for us to be able to communicate with a large gathering of protesters,” he said. 

APD has used LRADs during protests following the murder of George Floyd as well as protests in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade

Commissioner Rebecca Webber proposed discussing LRADs more in-depth at an upcoming meeting. “I think we still need that more specific information about what we’re spending on these devices and then how are we keeping our public safety personnel safe when we’re using them,” Webber said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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