MANHATTAN (CN) — The New York City Police Department must face assault claims, a federal judge ruled, for their past decade of firing military-grade sound cannons on protesters.
“This is a decision that we are very proud of, that we think has national significance and puts police departments on notice that they can no longer treat LRADs as glorified bullhorns or loudspeakers,” civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver told reporters in front of Manhattan Federal Court on Thursday.
Long-range acoustic devices, or LRADS as they are more commonly known, came into vogue at the U.S. Navy after the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Following the trajectory of other Pentagon technology, however, the weapon soon migrated to civilian law-enforcement agencies. When police in New York first deployed it as a method of crowd control, they were corralling protesters who swarmed the 2004 Republican National Convention.
Led by photographer Anika Edrei, the six individuals now challenging the practice say they suffered lasting injuries when exposed to sound cannons at a Black Lives Matter protest in December 2014.
Two days after a grand jury declined to indict the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner, Edrei says she was documenting unrest at the intersection of 57th Street and Madison Avenue when unidentified protesters threw objects at the officers, triggering arrests and the unleashing of an LRAD X100.
Providing the court with their footage of the melee, Edrei and the others sought damages for nearly a dozen civil-rights allegations, claiming that the sound cannon left them with ongoing migraines, dizziness, noise sensitivity and other discomfort.
Advancing several of those counts Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet found their allegations of assault and excessive force plausible.
“The use of the X100 as a projector of powerfully amplified sound is no different than other tools in law enforcement’s arsenal that have the potential to be used either safely or harmfully, one example being distraction devices-items like stun grenade, flash bang, or concussion grenades-which ‘detonate with a blinding flash of light and a deafening explosion’ and whose purpose is to be ‘extremely loud’ and distracting,” Sweet wrote in a 34-page opinion.
The X100 is one of the top-selling models by device manufacturer LRAD Corp.
“Although distraction devices have the potential to be more harmful than LRAD devices because of injury from explosion, both tools can result in comparable bodily injury if used improperly,” Sweet wrote. “This is force, and the kind which could be used excessively.”
As the case heads to discovery, with Judge Sweet slated to set a trial date on July 11, civil-rights attorney Oliver stood with his clients and fellow attorneys Thursday afternoon outside the courthouse.
Predicting that the NYPD will have to provide information about LRAD usage and policies, Oliver said officers and policymakers may land on the hot seat for depositions.
New York City Law Department spokesman Nick Paolucci meanwhile defended the safety of the crowd-control tool.
“The Long Range Acoustic Device is an effective and safe communication tool,” Paolucci said in a statement. “We are reviewing the decision and evaluating our next steps.”
Sweet warned in his ruling, however, that the NYPD will have to demonstrate that the department uses LRADs with care.
“Even in the absence of prior similar violations, the [NYPD] knew that officers with LRADs in the field were likely to face difficult scenarios, such as increasingly agitated protests, where the risk and harm of improperly using LRAD devices are great problems that could have been avoided with proper training,” the ruling states.
Oliver, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, said the decision might be the first of its kind.
“We hope that, as a result of this opinion, the NYPD will overhaul the NYPD’s policies and practices regarding LRAD uses to reflect the reality that LRAD’s are potentially deadly crowd control tools, requiring training and supervision to use safely,” he said. “If the NYPD won’t do it, we hope the City Council will step in.”
Oliver was joined at the press conference by fellow former guild president Elena Cohen and by co-counsel Michael Decker. For Edrei, the photographer leading the lawsuit, the ruling gives her a sense of safety to document history.
“It is vital that the press and public feel safe enough to engage with a moment that could be seen as the disintegration of the democratic process,” she said in a statement. “As a photographer, this represents a step forward in ensuring the ability to safely document charged political moments.”
Shay Horse, another photojournalist who claims LRADs gave him tinnitus, said the court victory reminds him of why he does his work.
“This is why my job exists, to speak out against abuse of power,” Horse told reporters today. “We have to stand strong in the face of injustice, and give no quarter to those who think they are above us.”
Horse was among seven journalists arrested for felony riot on Inauguration Day in January, charges that alarmed press-freedom advocates and could have resulted in 10-year sentences and $25,000 fines.
Prosecutors dropped all counts against him and five others, but the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press indicates that charges against freelancer Aaron Cantu remain pending.