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OWS, Meet LRAD: Is This Sound Cannon the Next Taser?

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Since the NYPD's clearing of Zuccotti Park last week and the subsequent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in lower Manhattan, OWS supporters on Twitter have been buzzing about the emergence of a new police tool stopping protesters: the Long-Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD.

Investors might want to keep an eye on it, too.

The LRAD is a sound cannon that can deliver a very loud message or, at higher settings, act as a weapon, emitting an ear-splitting blast that can cause severe pain, disorientation, nausea, and permanent hearing loss.

Here's a picture of one mounted on an NYPD truck, taken at the Zuccotti Park raid last Tuesday morning:

Image courtesy of @LukeRudkowski

If the black round device looks familiar, you might've seen it on Animal Planet's Whale Wars documentary series, where the Japanese whalers use it to deter the protagonists from disrupting their trade.

The US Army uses it to disperse crowds in Iraq, and the Navy keeps it aboard to warn boats away from shipping lanes and oil terminals. It's even been used against Somali pirates: In 2005, a Norwegian cruise ship off the horn of Africa used the $35,000 device to stop a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

The LRAD was developed for the US military after the 2000 USS Cole attack. The Pentagon "wanted a non-lethal weapon to defend its ships that wouldn't necessarily kill potential attackers," as Der Spiegel explains. A San Diego company now publicly traded as LRAD Corporation started selling the devices to the Defense Department in 2003, and today it serves clients from the Colombian Air Force to Thailand's flood relief agency.

And despite its success against pirates, the US doesn't classify it as a weapon, which is why it's legal for its maker to sell it to the People's Republic of China.

Its use to control crowds is controversial, but this week isn't the first time American protesters have stared down the LRAD -- it was reportedly used at Occupy Oakland, though only to order a crowd to disperse. And the NYPD has shown it off before, at the 2004 Republican National Convention, where it refrained from using it on protesters.

Whether the NYPD actually used it in sound-cannon mode on Occupiers yesterday is sort of an open question: Police insisted to the New York Daily News they "don't use it as some horrible noisemaker," just to order crowds around. Then again, major American police departments have been known to be less than truthful about their use of force against Occupy protests. Joshua Paul, a Rutgers student who took this picture of police carrying a handheld LRAD device, told Minyanville it hit protesters with a siren-like sound for about five seconds.

And it won't be without US precedent if Occupy crowds start getting their bells rung by the LRAD regularly. Pittsburgh's police department used it as a crowd-control weapon at 2009's G20 summit, where the device "emitted shrill beeps, causing demonstrators to cover their ears and back up" before the tear gas flew, according to a New York Times report.

With police departments across the country undertaking Zuccotti-type raids on Occupy encampments, and the two-month-old movement showing no sign of losing steam, chances are good we'll be seeing more of the LRAD. Especially if this is part of a worldwide trend of growing social unrest that many smart observers have been predicting.

In a world where clashes between authorities and crowds are becoming more common, the LRAD could be seen as the next Taser -- another less-than-lethal weapon, which has grown from a novelty to a tool seemingly on every American police officer's hip over the past decade. Police departments started buying the electroshock device to use as an alternative to shooting dangerous suspects, and it quicky became an officer favorite.

A profile on CBS's 60 Minutes last weekend detailed Arizona-based Taser International's rise to a multibillion-dollar firm on the strength of police orders -- and also its growing pains, as complaints of overuse and deaths have mounted and led to lawsuits. "There have been years where our litigation budget has been higher than our research," the company's founder, Rick Smith, told ABC.

LRAD International can't match Taser's revenues yet, but its sales to law enforcement are definitely carrying it upward. Even as military orders dropped, the firm last month reported record sales of $26 million, partly on the strength of local police orders.

Also last month came another sign the company could be the next Taser: its first lawsuit from a victim alleging long-term hearing loss. University of Missouri professor Karen Piper, who was observing Pittsburgh's G20 protests in 2009 when she got hit with the LRAD, says she's been diagnosed with permanent nerve damage from the incident.
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