ACCPD buys LRAD sound cannon to disperse crowds during civil unrest

The ACC Police Department has purchased a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), sometimes called a “sound cannon,” for use in dispersing crowds during unlawful protests and other events of civil unrest. If needed, the ACCPD intends to use the device as a weapon, despite the potential it has to cause permanent hearing damage in those targeted.

What’s an LRAD?

LRAD
An LRAD mounted on an NYPD vehicle.
Photo / FlyingCoyote used via Creative Commons [CC BY-SA 2.5]

LRAD devices project extremely loud sounds, making them useful for long-distance communication or to transmit emergency warnings. However, police departments across the country have also used this technology for crowd control in recent decades. By projecting painfully loud sounds over a wide area, police can disperse protesters without having to resort to chemical agents like tear gas.

The ACCPD Office of Professional Standards recommended the purchase of such a device after the May 31, 2020 protest in downtown Athens when protesters were tear gassed and shot with less-lethal munitions like bean-bag rounds (popularly called “rubber bullets”). The following was written in the internal police investigation of this incident, released in August 2020: “Additionally, due to noted public concern over the use of chemical munitions, the Office of Professional Standards recommends acquisition of other tools that are effective at dispersing crowds during civil unrest such as an LRAD.”

Due to the public’s rejection of tear gas as the go-to means of crowd control, ACCPD seems to have shifted gears and has since upgraded their arsenal to include sonic weapons. They purchased the LRAD in 2021 at a cost of $39,405.

ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill
ACCPD Chief Cleveland Spruill

ACCPD Chief Cleveland Spruill didn’t put it in these terms when he informed the mayor and commission of the LRAD’s purchase this week. In a nearly two hour presentation on ACCPD’s equipment and the policies surrounding their use, he did say that use of the sound cannon would be appropriate “if we’ve got someone about to burn city hall down.” Making it clear that he was referencing a protest or civil disturbance, he added, “we can disperse that crowd quickly by utilizing that tool [i.e. the LRAD].”

Other types of weaponry and equipment discussed during Spruill’s presentation include tactical rifles, an armored vehicle, tear gas, tasers, body armor, pepper spray and ballistic shields. Spruill also showed the commission a video of a police drone entering a suspect’s house to ensure it was safe for police to enter.

Are LRADs safe?

Physicians for Human Rights claims that initial reports show the “high potential of acoustic weapons to cause serious and permanent injury” and that “proper research and evidence about acoustic weapons’ health effects are still lacking.” Because of this, Physicians for Human Rights has joined the ACLU in calling for police to stop using these weapons on protesters, pending further research.

LRADs were used on Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, after which sales of the technology to police departments increased nationwide. For example, the New York City Police Department has used LRADs on protesters for years. NYPD was even sued after using a sound cannon on those protesting a grand jury’s refusal to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner in December 2014. Some of these protesters suffered migraines and ringing in their ears for days or weeks afterward, and some are still dealing with the effects of permanent nerve damage from the device, they say.

After losing the lawsuit, the NYPD was forced to pay $748,000 to the victims. The NYPD also had to agree to ban the LRAD’s powerful “deterrent tone” setting, although police did not admit to violating anyone’s rights.

Commissioners speak out

Commissioner Mariah Parker has spoken out in a comment to APN against the purchase of this new weaponry:

Commissioner Mariah Parker

“By the chief’s own admission, more Athenians are dying of drug overdoses and being traumatized by community violence than in any time in recent history, despite the fact the police department’s budget has ballooned year after year. And yet again, rather than invest in impacted communities to get at the root causes of antisocial behavior and mass dissent, we’re acquiring creative new methods to crush good trouble and maim the very people demanding basic human dignity. I remain optimistic, however, that in future work sessions on public safety we can begin to treat the community’s needs as urgently as we have treated making war against them.”

During Spruill’s presentation, Commissioner Jesse Houle asked if there were any policies already in place that would prevent the sound cannon from being used against protesters. Spruill replied that no such policy existed. “As far as the LRAD, no, we do not have a policy that would prevent us from using that as an offensive weapon,” he said.

Spruill justified the LRAD potentially being used against Athenians in certain “unusual” circumstances when its use would prevent the police from needing to use “higher levels of force,” such as physically striking protesters with batons. This is the same justification police gave for the use of tear gas after the May 31 incident. However, higher levels of force (i.e. less-lethal munitions) were also used in that case.

Next steps

Houle opposes using the LRAD as a weapon, but told APN that they were more concerned with Spruill’s request for every police officer to be equipped with a tactical rifle. Currently, ACCPD doesn’t have the budget to equip every officer with a military-style rifle, but some officers have been purchasing them on their own for use on the job.

Houle expects Spruill to make a budget request for more tactical rifles, enough to equip every officer, this year.

“This work session made it clear just how militarized our police department is,” Houle told APN.

Commissioners requested Spruill’s presentation because they are in the process of looking into the various types of equipment and weaponry used by police in Athens. You may wish to contact your commissioner if you have a strong opinion about how tactical weapons or devices like the LRAD should be used (or not used) in the future.

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