Portland Mayor Tells Cops to Stop Using Deafening Sound Cannon to Break Up Protests

In this photo taken at a 2016 protest, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy in riot gear stands ready to use a sound cannon, or long-range acoustic device (LRAD), against demonstrators near a Donald Trump campaign rally in Anaheim, California.  (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)
In this photo taken at a 2016 protest, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy in riot gear stands ready to use a sound cannon, or long-range acoustic device (LRAD), against demonstrators near a Donald Trump campaign rally in Anaheim, California. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

Police in Portland, Oregon deployed a controversial sound cannon to disperse protestors early Friday morning, the Willamette Week reported. Called a long-range acoustic device or LRAD, it can generate a piercing tone so loud that its potential to cause serious health effects has resulted in a federal lawsuit.

In a press conference Friday, Portland Police Bureau Assistant Chief Chris Davis said officers used a “long-range acoustic device” that can “emit a tone that is very hard to be around” sometime after 1:30 a.m. after a police broadcasting vehicle “came under attack,” according to the Willamette Week’s report.

While this news sparked a wave of criticism online, the bureau’s also been in hot water recently for using tear gas on demonstrators amid international protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis last month.

On Friday evening, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tweeted that he directed Portland officers “to use LRAD to only to share information and not as a sonic warning tone function.”

While LRADs were originally developed as military weapons to deter terrorist attacks, police departments nationwide began adding them to their crowd control arsenals in 2004. LRADs can project messages up to 600 meters away and officers primarily use them to direct crowds and shriek commands over long distances. However, these devices also come equipped with a “deterrent” function that blasts a series of high-pitched tones that can reach more than 150 decibels on some models (basically the equivalent of a gunshot or firecracker going off). Anything above the 120-decibel mark can “cause immediate harm to your ears,” according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

People unlucky enough to be nearby when cops have sounded these devices off in the past said they developed migraines, sinus pain, dizziness, and ringing in their ears as a result of the sonic blasts. A federal judge ruled in 2017 that the sound emitted by LRADs could be considered a form of excessive force. At the moment, a federal lawsuit is pending in New York that challenges the NYPD’s use of LRADs at a 2014 demonstration. 

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Though Portland’s police department has been instructed to limit its use of these sound cannons, protestors elsewhere have ample reason to remain on guard for them. A similar-looking auditory device was spotted in Orlando, Florida on Friday, and the makers behind LRADs, Genasys Inc., claimed in a press release this week that police departments across the country are deploying them.

“Police departments in Portland OR, San Jose, CA, Colorado Springs, CO, Phoenix, AZ, Columbus, OH, Charleston, SC, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and other cities used LRAD systems to communicate unlawful assembly and other orders to crowds after recent protests turned violent,” the company wrote.

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