A Joint Investigative Report by East County Magazine and Liberty One Radio
By Miriam Raftery
September 11, 2009 (San Diego) – “Long-range acoustic devices [LRADs] for crowd control can be extremely dangerous. These are used in Iraq to control insurgents. They can cause serious and lasting harm to humans…We want to know WHY our Sheriff Dept has this weapon,” Sal Magallanez of San Diego-based Liberty One Radio said in an e-mail sent to East County Magazine, prompting a joint investigation.
The device was stationed by San Diego County Sheriff deputies at a recent town hall forum hosted by Congresswoman Susan Davis (D-San Diego) in Spring Valley and at a subsequent town hall with Congressman Darrell Issa (R-San Diego). The Davis Rally drew an estimated 1,300-1,500 people, including vocal conservative and liberal protest groups. (photo credit: Mike Russell)
A public records search conducted by East County Magazine has confirmed that the device is an LRAD 500-x manufactured by San Diego-based American Technology Corporation (ATC). Capable of use as an effective loudspeaker, the LRAD also has the ability to emit a deafening tone aimed at incapacitating and dispersing a crowd without use of lethal force.
“It’s very concerning,” Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “ It is fine for the Sheriff’s Department to have new less-than-lethal weapons, but for their interactions with individuals these still-dangerous weapons need to be used only as substitutes for firearms. They can’t be used as just another tool on the tool belt. As we’ve seen with tasers and pepper spray, these types of weapons are being used to subdue people even though they pose the risk of serious physical harm.”
He added, “Even more concerning is having these weapons for public order policing. I can imagine no situation, or am not aware of any situation that’s ever happened in San Diego County or is likely to happen that would justify using these weapons for public order policing to control a crowd. The main effect of having those weapons at public events is to chill people and chill free speech and free association.”
LRADs were developed by ATC at the request of the U.S. Navy after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole as a means of dissuading hostile invaders. ATC founder Elwood "Woody" Norris is a pioneer in sound technology who has also been instrumental in development of ultra-sound and ground penetrating radar.
Cruise ship Captain Michael Groves successfully repelled pirates off the Somali coast using non-lethal weapons including an LRAD. Groves has since filed suit against Carnival Cruise Line, claiming he suffered permanent hearing loss as a result, the BBC has reported. Navy News describes the LRAD as "louder than a jet engine" and helpfully explains that it overwhelms its targets with "sound so loud they hear it inside their heads."
ATC initially sold LRADs primarily to the U.S. military, but has since sold products internationally and domestically. The company and its representatives have not limited sales to military, maritime and law enforcement personnel, however. Local lifeguards and even Liberty One Radio are among potential customers to whom ATC’s sales force has attempted to peddle LRADs.
Liberty One Radio host Mike Copass, a former Democratic Congressional candidate who ran against Davis, tried to interview the Sheriff’s officer who appeared to be in charge of the device, which was mounted on a Rhino all-terrain vehicle. But Magallanez said the official “acted as if he didn’t know what it was.”
East County Magazine contacted Lieutenant Anthony Ray at the Lemon Grove sheriff substation. “I was the incident commander,” said Ray, who confirmed that the device was an LRAD but was not sure of the model. “It’s a really loud speaker,” he said, adding that the device is used to assure that announcements can be heard over the din of a crowd. “We’ll often use a helicopter, but this is something portable,” he explained. The device has also been present at a sand-castle building competition in Imperial Beach and could be deployed at any large event locally, since the Sheriff’s office is sometimes subcontracted by other cities within San Diego County to provide security.
Asked if he was aware that the device had a deterrent capability that includes a directed sound loud enough to cause hearing loss, he replied, “You mean like they use in Iraq? I can’t imagine we’d do that, because it would hurt our own people at the same time…I can’t believe that we would use the kind of thing on a crowd that the military does,” he said, adding that the deputy on the Rhino was not wearing protective earphones. “There were deputies right in front, too,” he observed, but added that he would have to “go home and look this up on Google” to learn more.
In an interview last week with newly appointed Sheriff Bill Gore, formerly the Undersheriff, East County Magazine posed the following questions about LRADs.
ECM: Crowd control has been in the news with the Francine Busby pepper spray incident. Now some have expressed concern after spotting long-range acoustical devices (LRADs) at Congressional members Susan Davis and Darrell Issa town hall forums on healthcare. We understand these devices can be used as loudspeakers, to avoid need for a helicopter to address large crowds—
GORE: That’s not the primary purpose.
ECM: They’re also called sonic cannons, capable of directing a deterrent sound. They’ve been used in IRAQ on insurgents and to repel pirates.
GORE: That’s a precaution in case you need it.
ECM: LRADs can cause permanent hearing loss and other health problems. What make and model LRAD do you have, what are the guidelines for when these may be used, what training is provided, and how can you assure that your deputies and innocent bystanders won’t be hurt?
GORE: Our deputies have the required training.
He indicated that he did not consider LRAD technology to be a non-lethal weapon, such as tasers and pepper spray, then deferred other questions on this topic pending results of a public records request submitted by ECM.
However, Defense Update, a British defense contracting publication, lists LRADs as “non-lethal directed energy weapons. The publication states: “LRAD works like a highly directional, high power megaphone, able to blast sounds (such as crowd-dispersal instructions in Arabic) in a narrow beam and with great clarity at a deafening 150 decibels (50 times the human threshold of pain). LRAD can also create deafening noises which can incapacitate people within 300 meters by “firing” short bursts of intense acoustic energy.”
An article from Atomic Scientists at describes the device’s “ear-piercing siren” and confirms it has been used by U.S. Marines in Fallujah. The device has also been used by New York City Police for crowd control during the Republican National Convention. A technology article at GovPro.com states that the LRAD system “transmits powerful deterrent tones, by which piercing sound can cause pain, nausea, disorientation and possibly even hearing damage.”
Our records search confirmed that the Sheriff’s Deparment purchased an LRAD 500-X and on-site training instruction for $37,500 on July 21, 2008 supplied by the Lorimar Group, which signed an LRAD reseller agreement with ATC in 2006. In responses to questions asking whether the deterrent sound feature has been deployed locally or whether any complaints of harm have been received, the Sheriff’s office responded that no such records are available.
The manufacturer’s specifications indicate that “The superior voice intelligibility and clarity of LRAD 500X provides a directional audio beam that can communicate with 100% intelligibility over 88 dB of background noise beyond 300 meters and capable of communicating over 2000 meters away in a benign environment. LRAD 500X operators have the ability to issue clear, authoritative verbal commands, followed with powerful deterrent tones to enhance response capabilities.” Moreover, the spec sheet indicates the device has a frequenty range of +/- 5dB over a 500 to 5kHz range, with a maximum volume of 148dB at 1 meter continuous and over 95 dB at 300 meters.
Ironically, the devices positioned at healthcare reform rallies hosted by Congressional members Susan Davis and Darrell Issa have the potential to cause serious health harm if its sonic crowd control feature is deployed, one medical professional informed East county Magazine. Dr. Mike Copass Sr. (father of radio personality Mike Copass) confirmed that "148 db, the max sound of the 500x ATC LRAD, will damage/destroy human hearing and damage, potentially, the brain."
That detail hasn't deterred sales. ATC media and industrial relations representative Robert Putnam informed Liberty One Media that “Business is looking really good.” He said thousands of LRAD models have been sold worldwide, hundreds have been sold in California, and that two or three units have been sold within San Diego County, but declined to release agency names.
At least one use of an LRAD deterrent sound system used against a civilian crowd of demonstrators by riot police in the former Soviet-block nation of Georgia has been recorded on video.
In an interview with East County Magazine, Putman initially denied that the Sheriff’s office had been sold an LRAD made by ATC. But when informed that Sheriff’s documents confirm the purchase, he said the company uses distributors—raising the question of how many more devices have been sold—and to whom. “ATC has 95% of the LRAD market which we helped create. Before, there was really no acoustic hailing and warning device,” he added.
Putnam objected to the term “sonic cannon”, responding, “It’s not a sound cannon. It gets their attention and hopefully gets them to comply.”
He also denied that the company’s LRADs can cause hearing problems or other health concerns. “No, not true,” he said. “You’d have to be in close proximity for several minutes in order to have any damage at all. If you willingly stand in that beam for an extended situation, then that’s your choice. There’s no way a large crowd would stay.” He said the company provides hands-on training to customers and has not had any lawsuits filed over damaged related to LRADs. The company is now offering a hand-held model, he added, which costs about $5,000 and can emit noise levels up to 135 dB. The device can also be adapted to have a high-powered light, infrared night vision, or the ability to translate commands into a foreign language.
Bullhorns are ineffective in large crowds, carrying only 20-25 yards and suffering distortion, he said. “With our LRAD, you are good to up to three kilometers. The 500-x is good for about a kilometer or a kilometer and a half.” Activation of the deterrent tone is a function of the volume control, not a separate switch, he confirmed. “But they are also highly directional, so people operating them don’t get anywhere near.”
He defended use of the technology as a non-lethal way to provide warnings and to prevent innocent people from being harmed, such as fishermen who venture too close to a military vessel, international border, or nuclear station. “The whole point is to save lives,” he said. “If you’re a bad guy and keep coming, or wear protective headgear and keep coming, then you know they are not there innocently and you ratchet up the response.”
He also revealed potential new domestic uses for the LRAD technology. “We are also excited to save wildlife,” Putnam said. “We are working on trial tests to clear birds out of runways because when a jet is taking off or landing, that’s when it is most vulnerable to a bird strike.” Such technology could potentially save passenger and crew lives as well. He also predicts the technology could be useful to prevent bird deaths from drinking tainted water at mining tailing ponds or flying into wind turbine blades at wind farms, as well as preventing damage to solar panels from bird defecations. Birds would not suffer damage unless exposed to the deterrent signal tone for several minutes, added.
Seattle Weekly has warned that an LRAD device could be “an extremely attractive implement of torture in the wrong hands—or an equally alluring engine of light terrorism in others. Imagine how easily a miscreant could trash any sort of outdoor gathering.”
That concern raises troubling questions about just how closely ATC screens potential buyers of its long-range acoustical devices.
San Diego Life Guard Mike Russell told Liberty One Radio that life guards were approached by ATC about purchasing an LRAD unit similar to the LRAD-500x seen at the Susan Davis rally. An ATC sales represented “tried to sell it to the Lifeguard service for focused warnings in the middle of crowds or in the water,” he recalled, adding that the equipment was not purchased due to the high cost.
Asked by East County Magazine whether the sales rep disclosed the unit’s weapons capacity, Russell replied, “I was just told that it could be used “like an audio laser-beam” to speak to an individual or small group up to 300 yards away, without disturbing the people all along the beach. This seemed like great potential, people entering ripc urrents, or even in rip currents, could be communicated with, without disturbing the rest of the beach with the traditional loud speakers.” He added, “I wasn’t informed about any dangers to hearing, but I was just listening to the sales pitch guy indirectly…Perhaps the senior staff were informed.” A call to a senior lifeguard official was not returned by press deadline.
Liberty One Media (a politically progressive media outlet currently posting podcasts online while raising funds to purchase a broadcast station) sent an e-mail to ATC inquiring about purchasing an LRAD for use at concerts. The manufacturer sent sales literature, including a technical specification sheet, without warning about potential weapons usage—or inquiring about backgrounds of those seeking to purchase the product.
The ACLU's local director voiced serious concerns over ATC's efforts to market acoustic weapons to lifeguards and radio stations. “I think it’s inappropriate for commercial or private use, “ Keenan concluded. “There should be laws restricting it to law enforcement or military purposes.”