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George on Georgia – Soldiers are not police, and police are not soldiers

Crime and public safety George on Georgia Metro ATL

George on Georgia – Soldiers are not police, and police are not soldiers

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George Chidi


Generals are rare. About as many people serve in the Army as play baseball in high school. The odds of one of them signing a major league contract are better than the odds of a soldier earning stars on their collar. So when I saw Major Gen. Thomas Carden standing amid protests at the corner of Centennial Olympic Park Drive last month, I did what I usually do when I see someone with unusual authority, and asked weird questions. 

People had been chattering online about the use of an LRAD during protests. LRAD stands for Long Range Acoustic Device. It’s a sonic cannon designed after the Battle of Mogadishu to allow the military to disperse a crowd without shooting everyone. It is, at heart, a weapon of war. And it is a controversial piece of hardware because of its potential for damage.

I couldn’t believe one had been deployed. So I walked up to Carden and talked a little shop. I said I was looking for an LRAD. 

He laughed. He didn’t have one.

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I remember very clearly looking him in the eye and saying that there isn’t one general officer in the entire American military who would sign off on the use of one against civilians. The liability alone makes it impossible. 

Carden smiled and said he agreed. He wasn’t particularly happy to be out there at all — the National Guard had spent the last three months helping sterilize nursing homes, and street duty was getting in the way.

“Now you get it,” he said. “Tell them.”

The National Guard wouldn’t use an LRAD. But the cops would.

Six days later, police killed Rayshard Brooks. The next night, amid the burning Wendy’s and the tear gas in Peoplestown, Atlanta Police radioed for an LRAD to be brought in. Fulton County police, a rump department representing what remains of the unincorporated county, had one handy. And it was used to broadcast a message calling for the crowd to disperse.

An LRAD broadcasts at 110 to 150 decibels. If you are in the sound cone within 100 feet of one, you are at risk of instant and permanent hearing damage. It is indiscriminate force. The chief of police for Fulton County, Darryl Halbert, confirmed that theirs had been used at University and Pryor that night. 

The next night, “black bloc” demonstrators looking for an opportunity assembled in Grant Park, apparently intending to take on the Precinct 3 headquarters. And an LRAD was pulsed twice. Pulsed it, like hitting one key on the piano instead of playing the whole orchestra. Just popping it a couple of times, people thought someone had set off a bomb on Cherokee Avenue.

“From our calculations, there were 24 children in the block radius where they were using it, in the tiny area on that corner,” said Megan Gilstrap, who lives in the neighborhood. “That’s when we got really concerned. It’s like they were doing this show of their power, but they were really irresponsible with it.” 

Gilstrap spoke with a police major for Atlanta Police, she said.

“They said that they used it because protesters had been throwing rocks and bricks for three hours,” she said. “There were no rocks and bricks out there. They weren’t out there for three hours. They were covering up their tracks from what they were doing.”

The Atlanta Police Department has categorically denied using an LRAD in Grant Park. I’ve pinged all the other agencies around Atlanta that might have deployed one, and none say theirs was used there. I find that curious.

Grant Park is not Peoplestown. Grant Park has lawyers. Grant Park is lawyers. When people talk about not being able to afford to live in Atlanta today, they’re talking about not being able to live in Grant Park. 

No one is going to sue the city for blasting black people in Peoplestown with a sonic cannon.

When people talk about the militarization of the police, this is exactly what they mean. New York cops fired them at Black Lives Matter protesters six years ago. A federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that “purposefully using a LRAD in a manner capable of causing serious injury to move non-violent protesters to the sidewalks violates the Fourteenth Amendment under clearly established law.”

The Army wouldn’t use one here. The cops would. That’s a massive problem.

The Army has standards. The cops, apparently, do not. I could find the Army’s LRAD use of force rules online in five minutes. I’ve asked the Atlanta Police Department for their use of force policy for an LRAD.

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They don’t have one. Neither does the Fulton County Police Department. It’s not part of anyone’s use of force continuum, even though it is plainly a use of force.

I’m not surprised no one is owning up to it. Cops are getting fired for misusing force these days.

Under two federal programs, local police departments can get surplus military-grade hardware. Some of this stuff is reasonable. Hazmat suits. Night vision goggles. But Doraville and Newnan have armored personnel carriers, which are just short of being tanks.

An LRAD goes for around $30,000 – cheap as far as cop equipment goes. They spent the money, but no one ever bothered to write down the rules for how to use one, even though there’s a federal court ruling that says if you use one wrong you violate the constitution.

There are things the cops should not be able to do. Firing a weapon that can permanently damage hearing in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood is one of them. Using one without a standard operating procedure in place is criminally stupid.

Frankly, they shouldn’t have this weapon of war in the first place. That sound cannon should be decommissioned, and the city should discontinue the purchase of military-grade weapons of any kind.

Police are not soldiers. When they are equipped like soldiers, it becomes entirely too easy for them to see the citizens who employ them as an enemy.

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate.

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