Spokane police department to equip all officer rifles with suppressors
Spokane police department to equip all officer rifles with suppressors (Image: Creative Commons license)
Spokane police department to equip all of its rifles with suppressors

Citing hearing loss prevention, Spokane Washington police department is equipping its rifles with suppressors

Citing concerns over hearing loss, the Spokane Washington police department is equipping all of its service rifles with suppressors. Equipping the department’s 180+ rifles with suppressors is designed to reduce worker’s compensation claims filed by officers related to hearing loss incurred on-the-job, and protect the city from related lawsuits filed by civilians who may suffer hearing loss resulting from nearby officers who discharge their weapons in the line of duty.

Five officers in the Spokane Police Department have filed claims with the Washington Department of Labor and Industries for hearing loss as a result of gunfire.

Maj. Kevin King filed a claim with the state in August after a fellow officer discharged his gun near him, leaving him with hearing damage and hearing aids in both ears. “I had immediate, significant pain,” King said, adding, “It’s not only officers we’re concerned about, but those around as well.”

A department spokesman noted that purchasing suppressors will ultimately save the city money by not having to pay for devices such as hearing aids and other worker compensation costs.

Suppressors: Reducing the sound a jet engine at takeoff, to that of a chainsaw

A shot from the type of rifles used by the department can be louder than a jet engine during takeoff, exceeding 152 decibels. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has determined people may experience hearing damage at sounds exceeding 140 decibels. A suppressor reduces that rifle sound to approximately 134 decibels, just under the OSHA safety level. While that level may not cause permanent hearing loss, 134 decibels is by no means “silenced”, being equivalent to the sound of a chainsaw.

The hollywood myth about silencers

The idea that a “silencer”, or suppressor, actually renders a firearm silent, discharging a round with an imperceptible “pifff”, is a hollywood stereotype used to make an actor appear mysterious or undetectable.

Unfortunately, politicians with no actual understanding of how firearms operate often subscribe to this hollywood myth. Such shocking ignorance was recently displayed by failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Eager to politicize the recent mass-shooting tragedy in Las Vegas, and clearly subscribing to the hollywood stereotype that silencers would have rendered the shooter undetectable, Clinton tweeted “The crowd fled at the sound of gunshots. Imagine the deaths if the shooter had a silencer.”

In fact, silencers would not have concealed the shooter’s location. A shot from a suppressed rifle reaches 134 decibels, louder than a bullhorn turned to max volume, or an ambulance’s siren driving past a pedestrian on a sidewalk. Suppressors merely reduce a firearm’s sound to slightly below the level that causes permanent hearing loss. Lt. Rob Boothe, a range master and firearms instructor for the Spokane police department, noted in a statement, “It’s nothing more than like the muffler you put on your car.”

Boothe’s analogy to a car muffler is very appropriate. The inventor of the firearm suppressor, American Hiram Percy Maxim, also invented the muffler used in today’s internal combustion engines, using many of the same techniques to provide quieter-running engines. Indeed, in many English-speaking countries, an automobile muffler is called a “silencer”.

“Probably the best way to say it, beyond ‘suppressors’, is this is an OSHA-approved noise reduction device”. -Lt. Rob Boothe, Range Master and Firearms Instructor for the Spokane Police Department

Boothe acknowledged the hollywood misconceptions, “There’s this Hollywood mystique.” Boothe then added, “Probably the best way to say it, beyond suppressors, is this is an OSHA-approved noise reduction device.”

The department’s decision to adopt suppressed rifles initially raised concerns from the Spokane City Council, who, like Clinton, apparently subscribed to hollywood’s mythical representation of a suppressor. The Council ultimately agreed to the purchase after police educated them on the true purpose behind suppressors; to prevent permanent hearing loss. The Spokane police department’s SWAT team has used suppressors on its firearms since 2013.

“I had a couple citizens contact me about why the police are using suppressed rifles,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said. “I thought it was appropriate to get information.”

Currently, law enforcement agencies that wish to purchase suppressors must submit an application with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives pursuant to a federal law regulating suppressors. Law enforcement agencies are forgiven the $200 tax imposed upon private citizens and their requests are typically expedited.

The law regulating suppressors was passed during the Depression era after game wardens, ignorant of the relatively new device’s true limitations, expressed unjustified fears that poachers would use suppressed rifles to illegally hunt game on federal land.  Congress is now considering amending the law to permit suppressors to be purchased without such restriction.

Rifles used in approximately half of officer-involved shootings

According to police data, rifles were used in approximately half of officer-involved shootings since 2009.

Nearby Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said his agency has looked into purchasing suppressors for its officers, but has not taken that step due to costs and public acceptance concerns.


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