Should the NYPD’s Military Grade Sound Cannon Be Legal?

The NYPD deployed a sound cannon that a lawsuit alleges left protesters of Eric Garner’s death with long-term hearing problems. Should the device even be part of the PD’s arsenal?

03.09.16 5:01 AM ET

On Dec. 4, 2014, the night after a grand jury cleared New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, activist Keegan Stephan was photographing a Black Lives Matter protest when his ears started ringing.

Stephan focused his camera on a group of officers who were arresting a nearby protester, but was sent running when police fired pepper spray at him. While Stephan was retreating, he says, police deployed a more dangerous weapon: a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), a so-called sound cannon that emits dangerously loud, high-pitched frequencies.

Stephan is one of five protesters suing the NYPD over its use of the LRAD on peaceful protesters on Dec. 4. The device, which is fired on crowds rather than individuals, is too powerful, causing intense pain, migraines, and lasting hearing damage, the plaintiffs say. And worse still, the group’s lawyer says the NYPD has virtually no guidelines dictating when and how the LRAD is used.

Billed as a crowd-control device, the LRAD lacks the Instagrammable effects of tear gas or rubber bullets. The device projects concentrated sound waves across a 30- to 45-degree radius, prompting those in its range to cover their ears or flee. But while the LRAD leaves no outward mark, Stephan says its effects are highly painful.

“It was very painful right away. I could feel it beyond my ears, down into my ear canal,” Stephan told The Daily Beast. “My ears were just ringing horribly, so I left. I went home, I tried to sleep and I couldn’t sleep [because] my ears were ringing so badly. Most long-term damage has dissipated for me, but a lot of the other plaintiffs have suffered long-term damage and are still suffering.”

The NYPD’s own files on LRADs reveal why protesters might feel their lingering effects.

Before the device was turned on him in 2014, Stephan had filed a Freedom of Information request with the NYPD, asking for more information on the devices, which he had first spotted at Occupy Wall Street protests. The documents he received in return described the LRAD as military-grade weapons, designed for long-range acoustic attacks between naval ships. The NYPD’s LRADs are “the size of a large truck tire,” usually mounted on top of trucks, the documents said, although newer models are small enough for officers to carry.

By the NYPD’s description, the LRAD can “propel piercing sound at higher levels (as measured in decibels) than are considered safe to human ears.”

The police documents also describe LRAD volumes relative to other sounds. A motorcycle engine is approximately 105 decibels, the documents say. “Short term exposure can cause permanent damage” at 140 decibels. “LRAD sustained at maximum power/audio” hits 146 decibels.

At 160 decibels, the “ear drum breaks.”

Attorney Gideon Oliver filed suit against the NYPD on behalf of Stephan and four other protesters on March 3. According to Oliver, the LRAD’s dangerous effects are only part of the NYPD’s problem. He says police have been using the device more frequently, without proper training or protocols.

“Since around November 2014, the NYPD has been using LRADs more and more as part of the department’s protest policing deployment. Now they are more or less a feature of the police department’s protest response,” Oliver told The Daily Beast, although he said he was only aware of one instance in which the device’s weapon mode was activated.

The NYPD does not appear to have any specific guidelines as to when LRADs should be deployed. But other cities have set a more promising precedent, Oliver said.

“There certainly are other jurisdictions that specifically deal with LRADs and have use-of-force and crowd-control policies that better govern the use of the devices. For example, Pittsburgh, after the G20 in 2009, was sued, and part of the result of that was a monetary settlement—and then the development of written policies,” Oliver said. “There are other departments that, without litigation, have developed LRAD policies, but the police department—at least we are 99 percent sure at this point—does not have such a policy.”

The NYPD, however, says its LRAD use has not violated any laws.

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“The Long Range Acoustic Device is a safe and effective communication tool the department uses legally, during disorderly demonstrations,” an NYPD spokesperson told The Daily Beast in a statement. “It is used consistent with manufacturer’s recommendations.”

Stephan and his fellow plaintiffs maintain that their protest was not disorderly, and that their Dec. 4 march was protected by their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. But ideally, he says, the lawsuit will keep LRADs off the street.

“The ideal outcome for me is to curtail the NYPD’s use of these LRADs,” Stephan said. “The reason I originally filed a request trying to get more information about them is because I saw a very large truck-mounted one pointed at the Brooklyn Bridge when Occupy Wall Street marched across the bridge. The officer who was manning the LRAD was just a beat cop in a regular blue shirt.

“I know he has no training, and I know he’s manning this weapon that has the ability to deafen thousands of people right now. That freaked me out.”