A group of journalists and activists is suing the New York Police Department for civil rights violations over its use of military-grade sound cannons known as Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) during protests against police brutality in 2014.
The lawsuit, filed late Thursday against the city and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, charges that police used the LRADs to force the dispersal of peaceful demonstrators who had gathered in midtown Manhattan on December 4, 2014 to protest the non-indictment of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
LRADs are capable of emitting shrill, pulsating blasts at decibel levels that are dangerous to human hearing. Plaintiffs Anika Edrei, Shay Horse, James Craven, Keegan Stephan, and Michael Nusbaum say they experienced hearing damage, nausea, migraines, and other injuries after two NYPD officers deployed an LRAD at close range to crowds on the night of the protest.
The "gratuitous and unlawful" use of the devices caused the plaintiffs to "endure physical and other injuries, including deprivation of their rights to free speech, assembly, expression, and to gather and disseminate information freely, as well as their free press rights," the lawsuit states. Moreover, the department failed to properly train or supervise officers in LRAD operation, it continues.
"The LRAD is more a sound weapon than a traditional loudspeaker or megaphone," the lawsuit states. "A traditional loudspeaker or megaphone, including the familiar police megaphone typically used by the NYPD in connection with crowd control, amplifies sound by use of a diaphragm. In contrast, the LRAD technology uses piezoelectric transducers to concentrate—and direct—acoustic energy."
Edrei, who works as a documentary photojournalist under the name Mothdust, told Common Dreams on Friday that they have continued to experience ear pain more than a year later. "It's intimidated my willingness to do that kind of photography partially because it's dangerous and it's actually physically damaging," Edrei said.
"I truly believe that something that is untargeted that is used on an audience, that threatens their First Amendment rights, is unethical," Edrei said. "I just think it's important that someone speaks up about this."
The lawsuit comes more than a year after civil rights attorneys Gideon Oliver and Elena L. Cohen sent a letter to NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton requesting that the department conduct proper testing of LRADs and adopt formal policies for their operation—a letter that went unanswered, the attorneys said.
"LRADs are weapons," Cohen told Common Dreams on Friday. "We wanted some kind of assurance that officers are being trained and supervised and that it's being documented when they're being used. The NYPD said they needed more time, but in a year and three months, they've been able to provide zero documents."
Cohen said the ideal solution should be policy change and a city council hearing, not litigation. "I think there's reason to be very concerned and cautious about whether the NYPD can use the LRAD in protest situations, particularly in Manhattan and crowded places," she said. "We're worried that they're using these beyond negligently. There are a lot of concerns about whether the LRAD can ever be used safely and constitutionally in New York City. That said, what we're asking for now, is at the bare minimum, if they're going to have these weapons, they need to be trained in how to use them safely and constitutionally and supervised."
As revealed through a Freedom of Information request filed by the National Lawyers Guild in 2012, the NYPD has had two LRADs since 2004 and has admitted to deploying them on multiple occasions—but still has no policies for their use.
As Amnesty International explained in a 2014 report on police militarization, the devices "target people relatively indiscriminately, and can have markedly different effects on different individuals and in different environments."
That means "the LRAD's deterrent tone has no place at a protest," Cohen continued. "In order to seize people, you need to have a lawful cause. By using the sound weapon that forces people, through pain, to move in one direction or another direction, that's an unreasonable seizure. This is a ticking time bomb and it's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt again."