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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Sheriff’s Office buying $159,000 worth of rifle suppressors

Spokane Police Lt. Rob Boothe fires a Smith & Wesson M&P15 with a Gemtech Patrolman suppressor at the police firing range, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is spending $159,000 on 155 suppressors for its patrol rifles.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is buying 155 rifle suppressors for $159,000 to protect its deputies from hearing damage.

The Spokane County Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase without discussion. The Sheriff’s Office will buy the suppressors from Sharp Shooting Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Spokane.

Suppressors, which are screwed onto the end of a gun’s barrel, muffle the sound of gunfire. They’re often referred to as silencers, but law enforcement officials say that’s a misnomer.

“These do not work like the things you’ve seen in Hollywood,” Sheriff John Nowels said. “It does reduce the decibels that come out of the gun, but it does not make them silent. You’re going to know about it for a couple of blocks.”

The Sheriff’s Office isn’t the first local agency to buy suppressors for its rifles. The Spokane City Council in 2017 allowed the Spokane Police Department to buy 181 of them for $115,000.

Both agencies wanted to buy the accessories for the same reason – to help their officers avoid hearing loss.

Sounds greater than 140 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

A Colt AR-15, one of the most common law enforcement patrol rifles, produces a sound of about 160 decibels. Adding a suppressor can make the rifle about 30 decibels quieter, or roughly as loud as a jackhammer.

Nowels said Sheriff’s Office deputies have filed 18 hearing damage complaints in the last five years, although he noted that some of those may not have been firearm-related.

The Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Police Department have had at least seven officers suffer permanent partial hearing loss due to firearm use during lethal encounters.

Nowels said his office has been hesitant to buy suppressors. The agency has worried the general public might view the change as militaristic, he said.

The sheriff stressed that acquiring the suppressors is purely an attempt to improve safety and protect the county financially.

Hearing loss claims can be expensive, Nowels said. When a deputy sustains an ear injury while on duty, the county is responsible for their treatment. That means the county could have to cover the cost of a deputy’s hearing aids years after they retire.

“This has everything to do with protecting the county from liability,” Nowels said.