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Name that non-lethal weapon

Police state
By LIZ PELLY  |  December 14, 2011

SINISTER CYLINDER This sound cannon can potentially deafen you, make you throw up, and "activate a lot of fear pathways." 

When Boston Police stormed Dewey Square last week in an early morning raid, arresting protesters and destroying the last of Occupy Boston's tent city, they brought with them a frightening, seldom-used weapon.

Photographs by numerous citizens and journalists showed a round, black object about the size of a large box fan, mounted on the back of a police truck. This was the BPD's Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a riot-control sound cannon that has been deployed by the US military against Somali pirates. It has also, disturbingly, been deployed against unarmed Occupy protesters in Oakland and on Wall Street.

It's billed as a nonlethal weapon, but it's certainly not harmless. The BPD didn't use its LRAD on Saturday, but if it had, the device's piercing noise – the sonic equivalent of a laser beam – could have caused its victims permanent hearing damage, physical pain, nausea, and vomiting. According to the manufacturer's website, the BPD have used the device at least once, in Kenmore Square during the 2005 Super Bowl celebration. An LRAD was used to disperse crowds at a G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009; YouTube video shows protesters reacting in agony.

The BPD says the device was never intended to be used as a weapon on Saturday, but in its capacity as a glorified loudspeaker. "The LRAD was brought to the scene in the event the device was needed to make notifications, announcements to the large crowd," wrote BPD Director of Communications Elaine Driscoll in an email to the Phoenix.

"The high-tech device provides law enforcement with the opportunity to issue notification or warnings over a large stretch of land," wrote Driscoll, "in the event of a scenario where more traditional means such as a bullhorn is not effective given size of the crowd and overall noise level."

But the dangers of the LRAD far outweigh its usefulness, said auditory neuroscientist Seth Horowitz, whose forthcoming book, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, includes a chapter on LRADs.

"Using [an LRAD] against protesters who are not physically violent is an abuse of a piece of technology," said Horowitz.

"You don't want to be within about 100 feet of this specialized speaker, because it will be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. . . . It's a very loud, very piercing sound, so loud that basically your entire sympathetic nervous system fires up in response to it." Such sounds can induce panic and deter logical decision-making, he said. "[They] activate a lot of fear pathways."

The sounds are intense enough to affect the body physically — meaning the frequencies can't be blocked by headphones. "That's the kind of thing that can induce nausea. People who are particularly sensitive to it could certainly vomit," said Horowitz.

On Saturday morning, Alex Bresee, a student and Occupy Boston protester, saw the LRAD on the back of a BPD truck as he linked arms with two other protesters before being arrested. He believes its presence was part of a campaign of intimidation tactics.

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Related: Photos: Occupy Boston on the National Day of Action, With support among police quietly growing, can Occupy cross over the thin blue line?, After the occupation, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Police, Boston Police Department, News,  More more >
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