A federal judge ruled Wednesday, May 31, that a lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department’s use of military-grade sound cannons at a Black Lives Matter protest can go forward, as “sound can be used as a force.”
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet ruled that demonstrators who claimed to have suffered hearing loss, ringing in the ears, migraines and/or other injuries after police used a Long Range Acoustic Device, aka LRAD, to disperse the crowd had the right to seek damages, Reuters reported. The incident occurred at a Dec. 5, 2014, protest in Manhattan following a grand jury’s decision not to indict the NYPD officer who killed Staten Island man Eric Garner.
The plaintiffs in the case, which include two photojournalists, three demonstrators and a videographer, criticized officers’ use of the sound weapon, as video footage showed police aiming the device at protesters from just 10 feet away.
Their lawsuit notes that LRAD is marketed as a crowd-control device to law enforcement and can emit sounds up to 137 decibels — louder than a chain saw. Moreover, manufacturers of the device say the LRAD can cause permanent hearing damage and loss of balance.
“The protest involved large numbers of people and, so it’s understandable that the officers would want to increase the volume of their message to reach the largest number,” Sweet wrote. “However, the allegations and video make the protest appear broadly in control, even when glass bottles were thrown from the crowd toward the police,” making it “reasonably plausible” that use of the LRAD was unnecessary.
“This is force, and the kind which could be used excessively,” the judge continued.
Despite the allegations, the city tried to have the case dismissed, in part, on the basis that “the LRAD is not an instrumentality of force, but a communication device,” the Gothamist reported. The city also argued that police creation of a sound that the plaintiffs happened to hear cannot be considered physical contact.
Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law department, went so far as to describe the megaphone device as “an effective and safe communication tool.” Attorney for the plaintiffs, Gideon Oliver, disagreed, however, saying he hoped the NYPD would update its policies to reflect the fact that LRADs are “potentially deadly crowd control tools, requiring training and supervision to use safely.”
Now that the judge has dismissed the city’s request to dismiss the case, The Gothamist reported that the NYPD must turn over even more information about its policies, and the events that took place the night of the demonstration. Officers would also have to be made available for interviews in the case.
The city could opt to settle the suit, but Paoluccui said its still considering its next steps.