Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NYPD Sound Cannons Case Hits Federal Court

Trying to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit, New York City attorneys told a federal judge on Thursday that military-grade sound cannons used against Black Lives Matter protesters two years ago were for their own good.

MANHATTAN (CN) – New York City hears no evil when it comes to the use of military-grade sound cannons deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters and bystanders a little more than two years ago.

On Thursday, a city attorney urged a federal judge to dismiss a federal lawsuit over the New York City Police Department’s use of LRADs, an acronym for Long Range Acoustic Devices.

Police deployed the crowd-control weapon at a protest on Dec. 5, 2014, after thousands took to the streets to denounce a grand jury’s refusal to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who had been videotaped choking the unarmed Eric Garner to death in Staten Island.

A group of five photojournalists, protesters and a filmmaker who attended the demonstration sued the city last year, claiming that the LRAD damaged their hearing and left two with tinnitus.

New York City’s lawyer Ashley Garman told U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet on Thursday that police used the weapon for the protesters’ own good.

“In order to make the street more safe for protesters and provide for the flow of traffic, the use of the LRAD was justified, not arbitrary,” the attorney said.

At the time, Garman said, protesters had been throwing bottles in the police’s direction and had spilled onto the street at 57th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

Attorney Gideon Oliver, who is representing the protesters, said the NYPD does not train its officers on how to use what is a powerful military weapon.

The NYPD’s Disorder Control Unit touted how LRADs had been designed for the U.S. Navy to warn off other vessels coming too close and prevent a “USS Cole attack-type scenario,” referring to the terrorist attack off the coast of Yemen that was a precursor to the 9/11 attacks.

As with much U.S. military weaponry, the technology migrated to civilian police departments and has often been deployed against political protests.

By some reports, the NYPD has owned the technology for more than a decade, specifically before the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Initially, it had been used as an amplification device, but Oliver said that the NYPD increasingly has used it for “pain compliance.”

“The court has to look at this as a weapon, as a crowd control weapon,” he said.

The NYPD’s own materials state that LRADs can damage hearing when set to the “dangerous range” above 120 decibels, according to the lawsuit.

But Garman, the city attorney, claimed that the footage of the protest undermines the protesters’ case.

“They’re not running,” Garman said, referring to after police deployed the LRAD. “They’re not screaming. They’re not covering their ears.”

At this stage, Judge Sweet does not need to decide whether the allegations are true, only whether the lawsuit plausibly states civil rights violations.

Here, Oliver said, science is on their side.

The lawsuit accuses the city of violating protesters' First, Fourth, and 14th Amendments rights, under the theory that the sound waves themselves are excessive force.

“Our position is that sound waves by operation of physics can constitute physical force, can cause injury and injured our plaintiffs,” Oliver said.

Sweet ended the hearing without a ruling, which could set a precedent over whether police officers have immunity over LRAD use.

In 2012, the city of Pittsburgh paid $72,000 to Karen Piper, a woman who suffered permanent hearing loss as a bystander to a protest of the G-20 summit.

The American Civil Liberties Union, who represented Piper, also forced the city to train its police officers on the devices.

The New York protesters also hope to achieve the same result.

Categories / Civil Rights, Courts

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.