If you take an evening walk down Third Avenue between Union and Pine Streets, you'll hear a loud, piercing noise that sounds like a high-pitched car alarm going off continuously.
If you don't get downtown much, have a listen:
I recorded the audio above while standing in the doorway of the Kress IGA supermarket, where property owners have installed an anti-loitering device that emits a noise I could hear from more than a block away.
A Canadian company called Moving Sound Technologies (MST) markets this device as the "Mosquito," and sells it for $1,150 to "cities, municipalities, school districts, and parks boards" to "combat vandalism."
According to the MST FAQ page, the device has four volume settings and two frequency settings. The very high frequency can be heard only by people under the age of 25, but the other setting can be heard by all people. The IGA clearly has this thing set so everyone can hear it.
"They're fucking with our minds," said one guy who observed me recording the device on Sunday. "It's military technology, and they don't know what they're doing."
Though that guy sounds a little conspiratorial, he's not too far off.
The Mosquito's "standard" volume settings range from 85 to 100 decibels—again, according to the FAQ page—and the device "has been designed to run at 5 [decibels] above background noise levels." However, the set-up instructions describe the four volume levels as 94 decibels, 96 decibels, 100 decibels, and 104 decibels.
Using a decibel measuring app on Sunday night, I recorded swings between 75 and 80 decibels. The CIA subjects detainees at black sites to "white noise/loud sounds (not to exceed 79 decibels)" during parts of their "interrogations," according to 2005 memo from the Senate Intelligence Committee's Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, aka the torture report.
For more context, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) compares 80 decibels to the sound of a freight train heard from 100 feet away. OSHA compares 60 decibels to "classroom chatter" and 100 decibels to "Nightclub (w/music)," and sets their permissible exposure limit at 90 decibels for eight hours per day.
Over the phone, John Weller, a manager with Myers Group, which runs the Kress IGA, said the device operates from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. "every day, when the guys at night remember to turn it on."
It's unclear how long the device has been active. Weller said their property managers, Retail Opportunity Investments Corporation (ROIC), installed the Mosquito "a few months ago," but a Reddit user complained about the "loud, painful, and disorienting" noise outside the IGA in April. Bryan Stevens, a spokesperson at the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), said his department thought the device was turned off in July but reactivated in September of this year.
The volume of the sound is also hard to pin down exactly. Weller said workers currently set the Mosquito "at its lowest volume," but he admitted it was "a lot louder" when they first installed it.
Though I measured the noise on Sunday at 75 to 80 decibels, I wasn't using a device that met standards set by the American National Standards Institute or the International Electrotechnical Commission guidelines. Stevens said the department measured the volume of the device for the Seattle Police Department, but he didn't tell me exactly when that was. When they measured it, however, Stevens said the device registered at "60 to 62 [decibels]."
Is that a noise violation? It could be, if someone reports it. Stevens said the city caps decibel limits in Commercial zones at "60 decibels, or at the existing ambient noise level, whichever is higher." Anything over that could violate the Seattle Noise Ordinance, though people can apply for a "noise variance," which allows them to "vary from the limits of the noise control code under specific circumstances, usually for a limited period of time."
Weller claimed the supermarket, the property managers, and the city "made an agreement" last summer to "turn [the Mosquito] on at limited hours at the lowest volume." Stevens denied ever reaching or discussing such an agreement.
Stevens also said the SDCI is only responsible for enforcing the noise code in commercial zones during the day. The responsibility for enforcing noise complaints "in the context of nightlife" falls to the SPD.
According to the noise ordinance, "It is unlawful for any person knowingly to cause or make, or for any person in possession of property knowingly to allow or originate from the property, unreasonable noise which disturbs another." The ordinance specifically calls out "loud or raucous, and frequent, repetitive, or continuous sounds created... [by] a sound amplifier or other device capable of producing, amplifying, or reproducing sound." Between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., "amplified noise that is plainly audible to a person of normal hearing when measured inside a receiving dwelling unit" is "unlawful."
In an e-mail, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, SPD's public affairs director, said the department currently has no open "investigations on this subject," regarding the Mosquito on Third Avenue or any similar device.
But what we do know is this. At a minimum, the device is emitting an ear-splitting noise in the middle of the night that's as loud as a construction zone during the day. And at a maximum, the noise level nears OSHA's permissible exposure limit and matches conditions used by the CIA during torture sessions.
Jerome Banks, who said he's been staying on the block for the last three months, told me the sound has been "really bad" and "really annoying" in the last month, but he didn't know anyone to call to address the issue. "And I didn't know if anyone would care," he added.
Though it's hard to say how long and how continuously the Kress IGA has been blasting passersby and people such as Banks with this loud sound, their purpose is crystal clear. Weller said the supermarket and its property owners installed the Mosquito "to prevent the criminal element from gathering and selling goods and graffiti, hassling people in the street, and selling drugs."
"It’s just not safe for people who work here or adjacent business," Weller added.
When asked if the device actually keeps people away, Weller said, "Yeah, for the most part. But when they get so drugged out, nothing will stop them."
So it works, but not really.
It's also worth noting that, though Weller might perceive an increased safety risk to his employees, a recent Seattle Times analysis shows Seattle's violent crime and property crime rates are historically low; both rates were twice as high in the late 1980s.
While no writer at The Stranger could ever seriously argue against the merits of yelling at something long enough until it goes away, Weller and his supermarket's property owners are targeting the wrong people. If they genuinely wanted to solve the problem of vagrancy outside their store, they'd install the Mosquito in the middle of the State House in Olympia—or in the middle of the US Capitol Building, for that matter—and turn it all the way up until lawmakers finally sat down and agreed to fund permanent supportive housing, safe consumption sites, and other services for the people who need them. Until then, they'll just be annoying the hell out of people every night for no reason.