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Buffalo police want a 'sound' advantage over noise and violent demonstrations

Critics say sound device could cause injury if not used properly

Luke Moretti, News 4 Reporter - BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - Does a new tool purchased by Buffalo police sound too good to be true?

That's what some are wondering about the department's LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device.

"It's meant to allow police to send clear and concise communication into a long range situation," said Buffalo police Lt. Jeff Rinaldo.

"It's very directional, much like a laser pointer where you point the device based on the sights that are on the speaker," he added.

The LRAD, which resembles a large speaker that sits on a pedestal, was recently used outside Key Bank Center during the memorial service for Officer Craig Lehner who died during a dive training accident last month.

BPD used it as a public address system for the thousands of law enforcement personnel lined up outside in the street.

"It's used to be the loudest voice in the room," said Rinaldo.

But it has another function.

The LRAD can emit a loud siren sound in the event police needed to "move people out of a particular area," much like the siren on a patrol car, only louder.

"It's for out of control demonstrations," said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda, speaking at a Buffalo Common Council committee meeting in September. "Knock on wood, we have not had a protest go out of control and hopefully we never do."

Buffalo police acquired the technology and accessories at a cost of about $30,000.

"This is the best device on the market when you have to ensure that you can defeat the noise of an area and to ensure that at a greater distance your message is heard," said Lt. Rinaldo.

Similar devices have been used in other cities -- and not without controversy.

"Even before you deploy this device it's going to intimidate people," said Benjamin Nelson, a Buffalo attorney with the National Lawyers Guild.

Nelson points to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against New York City after police used a similar acoustic device at a December 2014 protest in Manhattan.

According to the lawsuit, plaintiffs in the case claim that they suffered "physical injuries, such as migraines, sinus pain, dizziness, facial pressure, ringing in ears and sensitivity to noise."

Nelson, who raised concerns about the device at a September police oversight committee hearing in Buffalo, says one major legal hurdle for the lawsuit to continue involved the question of force. In this case, police using "amplified sound" as a level of force.

"Can that be a use of force the same way it is for police officers to lay hands on someone. To strike them with any object. To deploy tear gas or pepper spray, and the court found that it is," Nelson said.

"Not only did the court find that the use of the LRAD was a use of force, could be excessive depending on the circumstances, but they also denied the city defendants something called qualified immunity," he said.

BPD Lt. Jeff Rinaldo says the department examined the New York City lawsuit when it was putting together policy on the use of its own LRAD.

"We looked at that lawsuit. We looked at what happened. What led to it. And we kind of crafted our policy," Rinaldo said. "We said, okay. What do we do to ensure that doesn't happen here if we do have to use this device."

Rinaldo says police would never use the LRAD's siren component unless it's at least 300 feet away from a group of people, and that police would first issue numerous commands giving people an opportunity to leave the area.

"We have a laser range finder that we use to be extremely accurate as to the distances that somebody or a crowd would be situated away from this so that we can operate it within the safe range that the device was intended to be used," said Rinaldo.

He says the device, which is available for SWAT, Crisis Management and Underwater Recovery, could be used to communicate with a barricaded subject during a police standoff.

The one owned by Buffalo police can put out a maximum tone of 149 decibels continuously at about three feet away.

What does that compare to?

"A gunshot, depending on the type of handgun that's deployed at very close range," said Benjamin Nelson. "It can be between 140 and 190 decibels. So you're at something close to the firing of a handgun at immediate close range."

The threshold of pain occurs at 140 decibels, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Nelson added: "This is injury. If you look at the federal OSHA standards for what people can be subjected to in the workplace. What's proper. This is off the chart."

Richard Salvi, a University at Buffalo professor and director of the Center for Hearing and Deafness, says the LRAD has the potential for causing hearing loss if not used properly.

"The longer you're in the noise, the more dangerous it is," Salvi said.

Salvi says exposure at high levels for even a short period of time could potentially cause hearing issues.

"I think if you're going to use such a device, you have to be really careful in how you use it, in terms of how long you use it, and how far away you are from the people that you're shooting this sound at. It definitely can be dangerous," he said.

Buffalo police argue that they need to have a method to communicate above the level of noise that could be generated by a violent protest or similar situation.

"If for whatever reason somebody was stand directly in front of this device and the tone was to be applied, or even for that matter just speaking normally into it, you absolutely could damage somebody's hearing with it," said Rinaldo. "But that's why we have come up with a policy set around its use."

"If it's used according to the manufacturer's instructions at safe distances it beomes uncomfortable but it's not something that is going to immediately injure you. It's no different than any type of use of force of a police department. The point is to gain compliance," Rinaldo added.

Buffalo Common Council member David Rivera, a former police officer who chairs the council's police oversight committee, says he'd like to see the department "take a step back" before using the device's siren.

"There are still lots of questions, and we expect the Buffalo police department to get back to us," Rivera tells News 4.

Rivera says he's interested in knowing more about under what circumstances the device would be used and what legal exposure the city would have if someone claimed they were injured.

"Whatever use of force we use we want to make sure it's adequate, but at the same time we want to make sure that it doesn't impact the health and well-being of the people," Rivera said.

"I don't think they should use it until they know for sure the effect it's going to have on the general public, and how effective it is."

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