WECT Investigates: Law enforcement has yet to deploy controversial megaphone device

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The technical name is long range acoustic device or LRAD. It's basically a very large and very loud megaphone for law enforcement.

The discussion of purchasing such a device in Wilmington last year drew some loud cries of opposition from some in the community. But a year later, with both the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office and the Wilmington Police Department each moving ahead to buying their own units, the complaints have been silenced.  And that's not the only thing remaining silent. The devices are quiet too. We've learned the units have yet to be used in public by either agency.

LRAD's road to Wilmington

The LRAD is designed to broadcast audible messages that can be clearly heard and understood from close range to more than a mile away. Law enforcement agencies across the country have added the device to their arsenals to use in emergency situations and for crowd control.

The device came under sharp scrutiny locally last year when the WPD first proposed the purchase to Wilmington City Council, with critics expressing concern it could be used as a weapon. Despite some pushback from the community, city council eventually approved the use of nearly $30,000 in federal forfeiture funds to purchase a LRAD for the police department.

Only after the WPD received approval to buy the device was it discovered the sheriff's office had quietly purchased its own model months earlier through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"We hope we don't ever have to use this device"

Although no local tax dollars were directly used in either purchase, some have questioned why both departments needed its own LRAD.

"It is not unusual for neighboring agencies to purchase duplicate equipment," WPD spokesperson Linda Thompson said. "These decisions are made based on the potential need and the growing size of our city and county. Having this equipment at our disposal is key to responding to potential emergencies. For example, in the event of a hurricane and or county-wide power outage. If we need to evacuate citizens, having this device with multiple agencies would be beneficial for timely public notifications."

Thompson declined to provide specific instances the WPD had its LRAD on hand in case it was needed, adding the department does not release security operations plans to the public.

"The device was purchased for several reasons; in case of a natural disaster, man-made disaster or public disturbance where emergency notification was needed in an emergency situation," Thompson explained. "Having this equipment on hand at a moment's notice is key. We hope we don't ever have to use this device, however, we believe it is essential for the well-being and safety of our citizens."

One known event where the LRAD was on hand: The Wells Fargo Championship at the Eagle Point Golf Course in May of last year.

The tournament attracted tens of thousands of onlookers – an example of a situation where the LRAD would come in handy.

"There was only one entry and exit point (at the tournament)," Lt. Jerry Brewer with the NHCSO said. "If a thunderstorm popped up quickly, (the device) could have informed a large number of people where to go."

Although severe weather did cause a slight delay one morning of the tournament, the brunt of the storm occurred before spectators arrived at the course.

Based on the proposed uses for the LRAD, one could surmise the agencies had the device on hand, or at least had it readily accessible, for several other events in the Wilmington area, including the student walkouts last month and the women's march in January that drew more than 2,000 people to downtown Wilmington.

Sound level equivalent to a jet engine

While there are several different models available, both the NHCSO and WPD purchased the LRAD 450XL, which can produce high sound pressure levels of 147 decibels or more, documents obtained through a public records request show.

For comparison, any noise over 140 dB is equivalent to a jet engine, according to the American Hearing Research Organization. Even brief exposure to a noise at or above this level can injure unprotected ears.

Opponents of the device fear it could be used as a "sound cannon" to control protesters. Former city council member Earl Sheridan, who was the lone vote against the WPD's request to purchase a LRAD, previously said buying the device for the police department would be a "hindrance" to police-community relations.

But both agencies have implemented similar, strict policies to guide its use. Both note: "The LRAD is not a weapon."

Included in the policies are sections that govern the operation of the device and the broadcasting of any messages.

An after action report is required to be completed following each deployment of the LRAD. Among other things, that report should include the duration and volume level and a brief description of the effectiveness.

However, those reports will likely be kept out of the public sphere.

According to Thompson, the reports would be private under the state's open records law, which allows law enforcement agencies to withhold investigative records.

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