LOS ANGELES – Sound has long been used as a weapon. The Germans put sirens on Stuka dive bombers in World War II to amplify the terror to unlucky souls below. Jamaican maroons – fugitive slaves – used the abeng horn to unnerve British colonial soldiers.
The U.S. Army blasted rock music to torment former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. And according to the Bible, Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho by having his priests blow rams’ horns.
Now, the power of loud noise is being harnessed by police departments.
It’s officially called the Long Range Acoustical Device, or LRAD, and it has two primary uses. One is as a high-tech megaphone that generates a beam of sound that can cut through the din of a noisy protest far better than conventional public-address systems.
Loud as jetliner
It also functions as a tactical weapon – projecting a high-pitch chirping sound that makes people cover their ears and run away. And with a maximum volume of 149 decibels, the LRAD can get about as loud as a jetliner on takeoff.
Pittsburgh police used LRADs mounted on an armored vehicle to break up demonstrations jamming the city’s downtown during the Group of 20 international economic conference in 2009. More recently, New York police officers used small, hand-held LRADs to bark orders as they ousted the Occupy Wall Street protest from Zuccotti Park.
The Los Angeles Police Department has an undisclosed number of LRADs, but they are larger devices fixed to vehicles, which they say might have been helpful in breaking up the Occupy L.A. encampment at City Hall last week. Police did not have hand-held units.
LAPD Cmdr. Bob Green said orders to disperse made with bullhorns went largely unheard because of the din of crowd chants and helicopters hovering overhead. The police had to use pickup trucks with massive speakers to get the orders across.
Better than a baton
“It’s frustrating when you’re not heard in those situations because ultimately it’s all about communications,” Green said. “Bad things happen when the batons are out and the adrenaline is flowing. So, if there’s something better out there to get the message across, let’s have it.”
The device was developed for the Pentagon by San Diego military contractor LRAD Corp. after the Sept. 11, 2011, terror attacks as a sonic weapon to help control unruly crowds and foil hijackers.