The New York Police Department is being challenged by legal advocates for what they say was the department's use of untested, unregulated military-grade sound cannons during civil rights marches in Manhattan earlier this month.
In a letter (pdf) sent to the office of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton on Friday, the National Lawyers Guild said the department's use of long range acoustic devices (LRADs) against peaceful street protesters violated numerous constitutional amendments. The group demanded a safety review of the device and public release of guidelines over how and under what circumstances they could be deployed.
Videos of officers using the LRADs surfaced on December 4 and 5 during marches that came after a grand jury's failure to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the chokehold death of Eric Garner. Crowds can be seen dispersing quickly as loud, shrill, repetitive beeps ring out in short blasts over and over.
The police department claimed it had used the device as a loudspeaker to make announcements to the crowd. However, as the New York City chapter of the NLG pointed out in its letter to the Commissioner's office, LRADs are designed to "modify behavior, and force compliance, by hurting people... technology that is designed to induce individual compliance through human discomfort and pain cannot be defined solely as a communication tool."
Initially developed as a sound weapon for the military, the LRAD's so-called "deterrent tone" is meant to hit human hearing at its most sensitive levels. As Amnesty International explains, "LRADs can pose serious health risks which range from temporary pain, loss of balance and eardrum rupture, to permanent hearing damage."
Further, as NLG notes in its letter, even by the standards of the police department's own Disorder Control Unit, the smallest LRADs are in the "dangerous range" for hearing damage and pain.
Elena L. Cohen, president of the NLG's New York City chapter and one of the lawyers who authored the letter, told Common Dreams that LRAD use against protesters not only threatens their physical health, but also violates their constitutional rights. "[A]ny regulation of First Amendment protected speech must be narrowly tailored and avoid burdening substantially more speech than is necessary to achieve the government’s legitimate interests," Cohen said. "The NYPD does not seem to have any trouble controlling protests and protesters, or communicating with protesters via bullhorns. Using a military sound cannon is clearly not the least restrictive way to get people to move onto a sidewalk or convey message."
One protester who attended the marches when the LRADs were used told Gothamist that he had residual pain from the sound cannon blast for the next six days. "It was like an earache," he said. "Any loud noises made it worse."
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Another protester told the New York Times that the experience was not only physically painful, causing her migraines and disorientation, but "emotionally jarring" as well.
"The LRAD was used as a weapon without reasonable notice and without providing a meaningful opportunity to disperse," the NLG wrote in its letter to Bratton, adding that the device was deployed "in circumstances where there was no imminent threat to public safety or property and where its use was not necessary to protect public safety or property."
The letter continues, "the NYPD’s uses of the LRAD were unjustified and unreasonable."
The appearance of the LRADs follows recent criticism of police militarization, which came after protesters in Ferguson, Missouri were assaulted with tear gas and rubber bullets by officers perched atop armored tanks, wielding rifles and batons. As Cohen says, the NYPD's sound cannons are an extension of the militarization trend, "part of the now ubiquitous sight of police officers in the United States wearing riot gear and driving tanks."
Gideon Oliver, a lawyer and co-author of the letter, told Gothamist that a sound cannon is not "a precision tool. This is an area-of-effect weapon."
"When the police use it, it’s not as if they’re just targeting one person," Oliver continued. "It’s indiscriminate like teargas."
Moreover, the sound cannons can hurt those not actively protesting. "The LRAD can cause hearing damage, and possible neurological damage, to anyone in its path. Particularly in New York City, anyone walking on the street or out of a building might end up in its path, and suffer short or long term health effects," Cohen said. "This is especially troubling for groups that might be at higher risk to hearing damage, such as children in the street, or mobility-impaired persons who might not be able to get out of the path of the LRAD fast enough to escape hearing damage."
As discovered through a Freedom of Information Law request filed by the NLG in 2012, the NYPD has had two of the devices since 2004 and has admitted to deploying them on multiple occasions—but still has no policies for their use. The NLG called on Bratton to cease the department's use of LRADs until the devices have been tested for safety and guidelines for their use have been made and publicized.
Without such guidelines, the NLG says, the NYPD hands free rein to officers to injure, confuse, and control protesters and bystanders alike, giving the department "unbridled, unreviewable discretion to suppress protected speech and conduct."