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Police use of long-range acoustic devices (also known as sonic blasters or sound cannons) against protesters is fueling both an increased demand from law enforcement for the devices and an outpouring of criticism from members of the public.

Spiking sales of the devices has been a boon for San Diego-based LRAD Corporation, one of the largest suppliers of the blasters. The company’s website describes their products as being “designed to communicate with authority and exceptionally high intelligibility.” The devices are intended as a long-range communication system, offering police something louder than a megaphone but less damaging than rubber bullets or tear gas, the company says of their use at Occupy Wall Street and G-20 protests, but aren’t intended as a weapon.

“All of these events have helped bring interest to LRAD as a new way to take care of these types of situations where they haven't had them before,” company spokesman Robert Putnam told the Associated Press.

But LRAD’s website also boasts of a “powerful, penetrating warning tone” that can be used to precede broadcasts. Even the smallest of the company’s devices can emit a volume of 137 decibels at close range, louder than a jet takeoff at 100 yards but still below the official pain threshold of 140 decibels.

Karen Piper, however, disagrees with the company’s assertion that the devices don’t damage hearing. The English professor from the University of Missouri, who attended a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh to study whether protests had any effect on the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, is represented by the ACLU in a lawsuit against the city concerning use of the machines. Her complaint alleges the city was negligent, reckless, and careless in using a LRAD at protests, causing her permanent hearing damage after being exposed to a device mounted on a vehicle at a distance of about 100 feet.

Putnam says the highest exposure Piper could have experienced at 100 feet would’ve been at about 120 decibels for a matter of seconds, which he compared to 130-decibel emergency vehicle sirens and 140-decibel custom car stereos at high volume.

“What would you rather have us do, the old 1964 routine with fire hoses and billy clubs? I think it's a lot more humane to make people uncomfortable because their ears hurt, and they leave,” said Raymond DeMichiei, deputy director of the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, about the device, which his office supplied to Pittsburgh police for the event.

(stock photo)

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