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Mosquito noise device at Gallery Place aims to annoy potential troublemakers

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; B01

Gallery Place business owners met with District officials a few weeks ago to voice their concern that loitering teenagers who sometimes get into fights in one of the city's busiest retail and entertainment strips were costing them customers. The result of that session premiered this week: a device that emits a high-pitched, headache-inducing sound that only young ears can hear.

The Mosquito, as the $1,000 device is called, hung outside the Chinatown entrance to the Gallery Place Metro station Tuesday, annoying its intended targets and then some. The young and a few not-so-young could hear the piercing, constant beeeeep, beeeeep, beeeeep.

"I can definitely hear it very loudly," 19-year-old Brooke Sawinski said. "It's pretty blasting."

Beeeeep, beeeeep, beeeeep.

"I'm about to leave because it's annoying," said her friend, Cassie Boiselair, 20. The two Connecticut natives were in town looking at colleges and said they understand the problem. Boiselair used to work in the neighborhood and said she won't take her iPod out until she's on her Metro train for fear of having it stolen, but she questioned the solution. "Couldn't they think of something different?"

Gallery Place has become a popular hangout spot for teenagers in recent years and was the site of a brawl last month that spilled into the Metro system and left several passengers injured, ending with the arrests of three teenagers.

It was around that time that business owners arranged to meet with a staff member of D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). About a dozen people gathered, including representatives of the city's police department, transportation department and Metro.

"There was a general concern of lawlessness on the streets," said Evans, who represents the East End business area. "I am concerned anytime residents and businesses complain to us about feeling unsafe."

Evans did not attend the meeting and knew nothing about the device until Tuesday. He said it was purchased by Herbert Miller, founder of Western Development, which built Gallery Place. Miller did not return calls for comment.

"Our role -- I want to stress this -- was convening a meeting," Evans said. "We had absolutely nothing to do with this Mosquito."

Mike Gibson, president of Moving Sound Technologies, which distributes the Mosquito, said the device emits a tone set at 17.5 kilohertz, the high end of the hearing range for 13- to 25-year-olds. "The bottom line is that the Mosquito is installed where 13- to 25-year-olds aren't supposed to be," Gibson said. "Adults just walk through the sound."

The device, he said, is sold mainly to schools, which activate the sound at night to ward off vandals, and to skateboard parks, tennis courts and playgrounds. In Fairfield, Calif., the device was installed at a low-income housing project at the request of residents who wanted to chase off prostitutes and drug dealers who congregated outdoors.

"It drives kids crazy," said Don Hemingway, vice president for business development at Miracle Recreation Equipment, a Missouri company that uses the Mosquito as part of a larger security device sold to playground owners. "It's pretty cool stuff. It gets in your head and it's just annoying, and you just want to get the heck out of there. We have other settings for adults if you have bums hanging around."

While a police representative reportedly attended the meeting about the teens, D.C. police Lt. Nicholas Breul said the department did not recommend installing the device. D.C. transportation officials and Metro said the same thing.

Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for Metro, said Gallery Place is one of the busiest stations in the system. "We are the school bus for Washington, D.C.," she said. "We have lots of youngsters who use that station, and we do not want to discourage their use of transit in any way."

At Gallery Place, some passersby traced the noise to the device mounted on the building's exterior -- a small, white box too high to reach -- but most continued, unbothered. Henry Ralls, 40, leaned against the wall a few feet away, hearing nothing but the music of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony coming from a player in his hands.

"I think it's a good thing," he said. "All the youngsters do is fight. The police be trying, but they can't stop it."

Maurice Arnold, 19, and Dwayne Cooper, 19, said they could barely hear the tone. Just a tiny beep, beep, beep.

Arnold said use of the device was "discrimination against young black teenagers," who make up the majority of the teenage crowd hanging around the block at night. "It's kind of mean, ain't it?" he said. "Even if a child were to complain, they aren't going to take it seriously. They don't see us as having a voice."

Katie Gommel, 22, a waitress at Matchbox who waits for her bus at Seventh and H, said the effort to chase kids away with noise misses the real issue: "Why are these kids hanging around here? Because they have nothing better to do. One officer standing here could do a lot more."

As school ended Tuesday, Tone Walters, 38, stood at the corner asking people young and old, "Do you hear that?"

The sound didn't annoy him, but he questioned the point of the Mosquito. "Who are you trying to run away?" Walters said. "It's classism and ageism. And it's sad."

"The reality is, this section has always been crowded and always is going to be crowded," he said.

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