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APD responds to concerns about LRAD crowd control measure

Wednesday, September 14, 2022 by Nina Hernandez

At the Public Safety Commission’s special called meeting Tuesday, the Austin Police Department answered follow-up questions about its ongoing use of long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, technology as a crowd control method amid concerns it could damage the hearing of protesters and officers alike.

The commission learned about LRAD at an August discussion about the department’s larger protest response, but asked APD to come back with a more specific presentation this month. Advocates, including Kevin Welch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation Austin Chapter, have raised concerns that the device, which is equipped with an alert mode that can reach 160 decibels, could be used as a sonic weapon.

“It’s not a sonic weapon,” Assistant Chief Jeff Greenwalt told the commission. “It is a highly effective long-range communications system used to clearly broadcast critical information, instructions and warnings.”

Greenwalt explained that the department finds the LRAD more effective than ordinary bullhorns for communicating with large crowds that may be obstructing public roadways or veering into highway traffic. The device is also used to institute curfews or broadcast warnings about potentially illegal conduct.

“If we’re using a bullhorn, we can’t with any degree of certainty state that everybody in the crowd has heard us or understood us,” he said.

In the case of the 2020 protests, the LRAD was mounted on a tripod on the roof of police headquarters. Greenwalt addressed the concern that the device could be used as a weapon by noting that, in most cases, the LRAD will be set up behind the police line, which would expose the officers to the sound as well.

“So if there’s any problem with the decibel level, the officers are going to know it first and they’re going to give the indication to the operator to adjust the volume, and that will be well before there’s any problem to the public,” Greenwalt said.

Greenwalt said in 2020 the device was positioned at least 50 feet from protesters at all times and could at that distance reach 109 decibels, which he compared to a bullhorn at close range. Injuries to hearing reported by officers during the protest, he said, were instead caused by protesters using bullhorns and setting off fireworks close by the officers.

In his testimony, Welch pointed to a user manual that states the device can reach as high as 115 decibels within a range of 120 feet and shouldn’t be used “for any length of time” at a shorter distance. Considering that, Welch said, APD can’t definitively prove that the LRAD didn’t contribute to officers’ hearing loss. Greenwalt said he looked forward to seeing the manual and researching that point.

“Whether or not that was specifically responsible for the hearing loss in this case, there’s unfortunately not been enough studies yet done on the long-term hearing risks of these devices,” Welch said.

There’s also the question of the device’s alert feature, which instead of amplifying messages emits an extremely loud and painful sound intended to dispel crowds. Welch noted that last year New York City was forced to ban the use of the feature in a settlement with injured protesters that ultimately cost more than $1 million.

“Considering we’ve already had to pay out over $12 million in lawsuit settlements recently, I question the wisdom of authorizing a device that – whether or not it is dangerous – there is precedent of it costing other cities lots of money in lawsuits,” he said.

Greenwalt reiterated that the department does not use the alert feature, but acknowledged that the feature is not disabled. Welch said that raised the question of potential operator error.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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