A crowd-control device flies under the radar, on purpose

1
443

by Eric Ginsburg

When the Greensboro Police Department publicly rolled out a new piece of technology, it intentionally downplayed one of the equipment’s primary uses: crowd control.

After more than a year of discussing it, the Greensboro Police Department acquired a long-range acoustic device — or LRAD — in July. When the department publicly announced the $13,000 purchase a month ago, it hadn’t yet developed protocols for the equipment’s use, according to emails obtained by Triad City Beat through a public-records request, but it did have a plan for how to talk about the device.

In a Sept. 30 email to Chief Wayne Scott, department spokesperson Susan Danielsen wrote: “May I publicize the LARP, LERP or whatever the big bullhorn thing is?” Scott’s response was short, but telling.

“It’s the LRAD…” he wrote. “I want to concentrate on the communication features…not crowd control… if you know what I [am] getting at…”

Danielsen responded a few minutes later, saying she’d work with Capt. Jonathan Franks to set up a demonstration of the tool, and would “stress the utility of the device in crisis management (e.g. barricaded subject) and looking for missing persons.”

Franks, who championed the department’s purchase of the LRAD, appeared to be relieved by Danielsen’s response. He forwarded her email to retired police captain Robbie Flynt, and wrote, “Just an FYI — She knows better.” Franks couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday, and it is unclear exactly what he meant by the comment. But Flynt said via email that Franks mistakenly emailed him, adding that he retired in 2008 before buying an LRAD came up.

In a Nov. 2 press release, Danielsen emphasized the ability to broadcast messages and make public addresses, though it does mention crowd control as one of the machine’s functions.

The LRAD 300 purchased by the department in July is indeed designed for communicating messages in various scenarios, as Scott and Danielsen discussed. But it can also broadcast a “deterrent tone” for crowd control purposes, a component highlighted in a sales brochure supplied to the department.

On July 31, 2014, Bill Rankin, a Raleigh-based representative of equipment company Safeware, presented the LRAD to Greensboro police officers at the department’s Swing Road station. The next day, he emailed a brochure that explains the device’s uses.

“When SWAT officers arrive one scene, notifying the surrounding neighborhood quickly and effectively that an operation is underway is paramount for public safety,” it reads, going on to extol the benefits of communicating with an armed suspect from farther away than a bullhorn would allow and giving examples of scenarios in which the LRAD is useful, like talking a subject down from a bridge.

But an important component of the device’s function, stressed in the brochure, is subduing volatile protestors or crowds.

“LRAD can create standoff and safety zones, support the resolution of uncertain situations, and potentially prevent the use of non-lethal and lethal weapons,” it reads. “In hostile situations, unlike tear gas, Tasers, rubber bullets, pepper spray and other non-lethal and lethal responses, LRAD can be modulated in response to a subject’s actions. When LRAD’s deterrent tone is used at close range, protesters sense audible discomfort, cover their ears and move away.

Part of the brochure
Part of the brochure

“Just the act of covering ears with hands reduces the sound pressure level by approximately 25dB and could prevent protesters from throwing projectiles,” it continues. “LRAD can be quickly modulated in response to protestors actions by controlling audio output through a prominently positioned volume control knob.”

The text is accompanied by an image of Pittsburgh police in riot gear, using an LRAD to “communicate with and disperse unruly crowds during the 2009 G20 Summit.”

The short brochure ends with a quote from Raymond DeMichiei, Pittsburgh’s deputy director of emergency management and homeland security: “Every police officer I talked to thought it worked famously, the bottom line is we could maintain order with the protesters without hurting them.”

The brochure isn’t the only explicit reference to using an LRAD in a protest or civil unrest scenario in the lead up to the department’s purchase. Communication between Rankin and department employees continued throughout 2014, and two days before Christmas last year, he forwarded an email composed by the LRAD Corp. a few days earlier.

“Last week, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order barring police in Ferguson, Mo. from using tear gas and other agents to disperse peaceful protesters without first issuing ‘clear and unambiguous warnings,’” the original message reads. “Activists are pushing for similar measures in other cities.”

In his email, which is copied to an employee of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, Rankin wrote: “In light of what has been going on FYI. Happy Holidays.”

Rankin visited Greensboro to demonstrate the device’s use repeatedly, including a cheaper LRAD 100x model that is smaller and cheaper than the version the department ultimately bought. An April 20, 2015 quote listed the LRAD 300x and associated equipment at $20,620 and the smaller alternative and gear at $9,662.

In an April 24 email to Franks, Lt. Leslie A. Holder expressed her support for the LRAD 300, which she described as “exponentially superior for both sound quality and distance,” among other benefits.

The device’s use in protest and unrest scenarios wasn’t lost on her.

“The LRAD could be used in a multitude of situations and by multiple special teams/units for enhanced communication in events such as civil unrest, crowd control/dispersal, barricaded subjects/hostage situations, evacuations, and missing/lost persons,” Holder wrote.

Rankin returned for another demonstration of the LRAD on May 20, and Franks requested to hold it in a new location.

“Can we do the demo down at GTCC on their driving area — we will be teaching another Crowd Control class at that time there,” he wrote. “Good large area for a demo.”

A month later, on June 19, it appears as though Chief Scott was unconvinced. In an email to Franks, another employee wrote, “Get Wayne onboard that you need one. He’s the one that put the kibosh on it.”

The LRAD 300x
Part of a product guide

But by that point, Rankin was selling his LRAD 300 and 100 demo units for 25 percent off. When Franks emailed Scott, asking, “Anyway we can look at this?” Scott replied: “How much…? I would only consider the larger unit… Let me know.”

The cost for the demo unit of the LRAD 300x, with tax, came out to just above $11,200, and the city jumped on the offer, purchasing the device with operational funds in July once the current fiscal year began.

The request for public-record emails related to the long-range acoustic device turned up other messages too, including a May 6 email directly from the LRAD Corp. to Mayor Nancy Vaughan that was almost identical to the company’s earlier message regarding Ferguson protests. An unrelated June 22 email to Capt. David Robinette included various news articles including one titled “NYPD uses LRAD-sonic weapon on Eric Garner protesters.” By then, the purchasing plan was already underway.

the LRAD image
A departmental photo

After the Nov. 2 press release, internal emails between Danielsen and other officers involved in the purchase welcomed news coverage stressing the equipment’s communication functions, including a Time Warner Cable News piece titled “Greensboro Police Department is now loud and clear” and another in the News & Record with the headline “New device designed to help Greensboro police shorten search times, find missing people.”

But not everyone was impressed. Blogger Roch Smith emailed the mayor, city council, city manager, and others with a link to a Slate article bearing the headline: “This is the sound cannon used against protestors in Ferguson” about an incident less than two weeks after Rankin’s first demonstration of the LRAD to Greensboro police.

Smith worried about the device’s actual uses and protocol.

“Although this press release briefly mentions the use of this device for crowd control, it does not convey the extent of its capabilities to cause pain and permanent injury when deployed as a weapon,” he wrote. “Is city leadership aware of why this has been acquired and the intentions for its deployment? Is there some policy governing its use that can be shared with the public?”

Wesley Reid, the assistant city manager who oversees public safety, responded.

“In this case, I was unaware of the purchase of the LRAD system but have spent some time with Chief Scott discussing its use,” he said. “Our intent is to use LRAD as stated in the press release for search and rescue, crowd control, natural and man-made disasters, hostage situations, active shooter, or missing persons searches… I believe all of us share similar concerns about how LRAD systems have been used in other cities and we are incorporating those concerns into our use of the system. There is no policy in place yet.”

  • Christian Yorkshire

    so did it come with a bow on it? Not sure how I really feel about this. On the one hand it can be used for variable tactics, unlike a surplus armored personnel carrier. It is also non-lethal and effective at subduing violent individuals (a feature demonstrated by our lethal military and special forces). Now on the other hand, is our department worried about something or just being prepared? The down-playing is concerning but maybe it is a true attempt at not stoking glowing embers in our community. I guess the only true way to tell will be how it is ultimately utilized by the department: carelessly or with extreme discretion.