New York City police officers have lately taken to blasting protesters with 21st-century sound cannons, and as far as anyone can tell, the department doesn’t have any policies governing when and how they get to do so.
Video taken on the night of December 4th during one of the marches protesting the failure to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner clearly shows police officers deploying one of its Long Range Acoustic Devices, or LRADs, against protesters near Columbus Circle. Today, lawyers representing some of those protesters have written to NYPD Commissioner Bratton, raising concerns with the NYPD’s use of the device.
“This is not a precision tool,” said Gideon Oliver, one of the lawyers who authored the letter. “This is an area-of-effect weapon. When the police use it, it’s not as if they’re just targeting one person. It’s indiscriminate like teargas.”
Oliver's letter asks for any written policies the department has for the use of the LRAD, but he said it also serves to put the department on notice. “It’s about making sure the commissioner knows about the incident that happened to our clients,” he said. “Also, there are ongoing protests—there’s a big protest Saturday. We wanted to make sure the commissioner knows we’re watching how they’re using this device.”
Asked whether his clients are considering a lawsuit, Oliver answered, "We’re certainly looking at it.”
First popularized for military applications more than a decade ago, LRADs are powerful amplification systems that direct a focused cone of sound, enabling instructions and announcements to be communicated across great distances. But from early on, LRAD’s have also been equipped with a “powerful warning tone,” as the manufacturer’s website puts it, that allows for “near instantaneous escalation across the force protection spectrum” to “shape the behavior of potential threats.”
To translate that from the obfuscatory jargon of people who sell tools for hurting people: The LRAD can be used as a crowd-control device, emitting a piercing noise so loud that it can really mess you up if you don’t comply or disperse immediately.
Perhaps mindful of public discomfort with the prospect of cops with their fingers on the triggers of futuristic incapacitating sonic weapons, both the manufacturer and the police tend to emphasize the device’s utility as a public address system, presenting it as little more than an extra-loud bullhorn.
The NYPD bought a pair in advance of the 2004 Republican National Convention, but reportedly only used it as an address system. Since then, LRADs have been a common sight at mass protests in NYC: police brandished a truck-mounted LRAD when Occupy Wall Street protesters marched on the Brooklyn Bridge in 2011, and there are reports that one was actually used during the eviction of Occupiers from Zuccotti Park a few months later.
More recently, journalist John Knefel spotted NYPD officers carrying the smaller, handheld LRAD 100x model during protests following the police killing of 16-year-old Kimani Gray in 2013. It’s the 100x model that cops were using against protesters last week.
Keegan Stephan, an activist and frequent attendee of NYC-area protests, was in midtown last week when the LRAD was used. “The scene was very bizarre,” Stephan says. “There was an arrest that was made near to me. Three officers were on this guy’s back while cuffing him. It was very disturbing for me because it was reminiscent of what happened to Eric Garner.”
Stephan began taking pictures of the arrest, surprised that he wasn’t being forced away from the scene by police. “That already felt like this was eerie and strange,” he says. “But instead of getting shoved away, an officer deployed pepper spray across three of us who were there watching. Everybody was just terrified. People started running down 57th Street.”
It was in the midst of this chaos, with protesters already running away from police, that the cops started using the LRAD, alternating between making announcements to clear the roadway and using its pain-inducing crowd-dispersal alarm. Stephan retreated to the sidewalk, where he was outside of the cone where people took the full blast of the LRAD, and captured video.
Another protester, who shot this video, was caught in the LRAD’s cone of sound. “It's like being inches from a car alarm going off, except a car alarm goes off after maybe 10 seconds,” he said. “It was definitely one of the loudest noises I've ever heard, but I wouldn't say it was immediately pain inducing. But for the next six days, I was feeling pain. It was like an earache. Any loud noises made it worse.”
Last week wasn’t Stephan’s first exposure to the NYPD’s LRADs. Disturbed by seeing one of the devices on the Brooklyn Bridge during the Occupy Wall Street march, he and another activist worked with the NYCLU to file a Freedom of Information Law request seeking all of the NYPD’s materials on the LRADs.
The supposedly exhaustive response they got back in 2012 contained absolutely nothing detailing department rules on the use of LRADs. That’s a problem, says Oliver. “It tells us, we think, that as of late 2012 there were no written guidelines or policies." Here's an excerpt from the LRAD documents released by the NYPD:
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication; we'll update if we hear back from them.
What Stephan's Freedom of Information request did yield was 17 pages of press clippings, manufacturer’s specs, and promotional materials, as well as a seven-page briefing by the NYPD’s Disorder Control Unit on testing they’d conducted in a deserted Bronx parking lot.
According to that report, with the power turned up to maximum, police recorded sound levels of 110 decibels at 320 feet away: enough to cause hearing loss with sustained exposure, but no louder than a power saw. The police took no readings closer than 320 feet. “Potential danger area. Not tested,” reads a notation in the report.
Of course, as many of the videos taken during the march last week show, protesters were well within that football-field-long potential danger area when police officers used the LRAD. And while there’s no way to know whether the LRAD was turned up to maximum volume, Oliver says it’s hard to see how the cops could know that it was safe to use the LRAD at any loud volume so close to people, in the enclosed canyons of midtown.
Alex Vitale, a policing expert at Brooklyn College, is also concerned by the use of the LRAD last week. While there might be situations where police have a legitimate use for the device, such as dispersing a large and violent group, he says this wasn’t such a situation.
“LRADs should be used to avoid having to do a baton charge,” Vitale says. “This was used to scatter already scattered protesters.”
The problem, according to Vitale, is that we know very little about the safety of LRADs in crowd-control situations. “Very few departments have them and even fewer have ever used them,” he says. “Usage for dispersal functions is very, very rare. So we don’t really know a lot about how effective they are in practice.”
In 2009, Karen Piper, an academic researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, sued the city of Pittsburgh after she was exposed to an LRAD while observing an anti-globalization protest during the G-20 summit.
Piper said the LRAD made fluid leak out of her ear, and produced dizziness, nausea, and headaches. The city ultimately settled the suit for $72,000 and agreed to develop a policy for safe use of LRADs.
The only other major public discussion of LRAD policy came in Canada in 2010, when civil liberties advocates sought to prevent police from using their LRADs as weapons against protesters during the G-8 and G-20 summits. The resulting ministry report determined that “simply put, new weapons such as the LRAD should not be employed without prior independent assessment and study.”
Vitale says the use of the LRAD seems to run contrary to the more hands-off, deescalatory “Negotiated Management” style of protest policing that Commissioner Bratton has generally adopted. The way the police used the LRAD last week—using the public address function to make announcements at the same time that they employed the painful warning sound—suggests to Vitale that this was not a well-thought out implementation.
“It just seemed like they didn’t know what they were doing,” he says. “I’m just guessing that they’ve got a new toy and they were figuring out how to use it.”
The best thing, Vitale says, would be for the City Council’s Public Safety Committee to hold hearings on the proper use of the device.
In the meantime, Stephan says the use of LRADs against demonstrators has the potential to frighten people away from exercising their right to assemble. “The idea that the NYPD has a weapon that can cause permanent hearing damage and is willing to use it on peaceful demonstrators definitely has a chilling effect on people’s First Amendment rights,” Stephan says. “It’s going to make me want to leave or limit my involvement the minute I see that thing out. I don’t want to be in that beam.”
Nick Pinto is a freelance writer living in New York.