After sustaining significant physical injuries as a result of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) usage of an LRAD sound cannon in 2016, protesters and journalists brought a lawsuit against the City of New York challenging the NYPD’s excessive use of force in violation of their constitutional rights.
The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 2021 that purposely using LRAD in a manner capable of causing serious injury to non-violent protesters is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution’s prohibition against excessive force.
In June 2018, the court ruled that the device was an instrument of force designed for “incapacitating and painful effects” and that “the problem posed by protesters in the street did not justify the use of force, much less force capable of causing serious injury, such as hearing loss.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that purposely using LRAD in a manner capable of causing serious injury to non-violent protesters is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment prohibition against excessive force. In June 2018, the court ruled that the device was an instrument of force designed for “incapacitating and painful effects” and that “the problem posed by protesters in the street did not justify the use of force, much less force capable of causing serious injury, such as hearing loss.”
Subsequently, the NYPD agreed to a legal settlement that included policy changes to the NYPD’s use of LRADs. Under the April 2021 settlement agreement, police officers are prohibited from using the painfully loud and high-pitched “deterrent” or “alert” tone, though they may make voice announcements on the devices. The agreement also requires the department to change its training materials on the devices and states that while police supervisors and department lawyers may authorise the use of LRADs, officers “must make reasonable efforts to maintain minimum safe distances between the LRAD and all persons within its cone of sound.”
The protestors who brought the lawsuit had attended racial justice demonstrations in New York City in December 2014 in their capacity as photojournalists, observers, filmmakers, or active protestors objecting to a grand jury decision not to indict the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner. In the early morning hours of 5 December 2014, NYPD officers employed a type of LRAD called 100X to disperse nonviolent protesters. This acoustic weapon can “project messages up to 600 metres away, produce a maximum continuous output of 136 dB at one metre away, and has the capacity to overcome 88 dBs of background noise at 250 metres.” NYPD officers indiscriminately employed the device’s deterrent tone between 15 and 20 times over a span of three minutes. At various points, NYPD officers angled and fired the device fewer than 10 feet away from protestors.
Due to their exposure to LRAD’s ear-splitting sound, the plaintiffs suffered from physical injuries, such as “migraines, sinus pain, dizziness, facial pressure, ringing in ears, and sensitivity to noise.” One was diagnosed with tinnitus in both ears following the NYPD’s use of the LRAD, while another was diagnosed with hearing loss due to nerve damage. Another plaintiff testified that he was told by his doctor that “the pressure of the extreme level of the noise from the LRAD had pushed a bone in his ear inwards, impacting and damaging a nerve in his ear.” Several of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit say they are now afraid to attend protests, which, for some, has negatively impacted their professional opportunities as journalists.
In 2020, the company that manufactures LRADs, Genasys Inc., reported that law enforcement agencies and police departments in more than 100 countries, including 500 U.S. cities used the devices. With the policy changes resulting from the April 2021 settlement agreement, the NYPD became one of the first large U.S. police departments to ban the use of LRADs’ shrill “deterrent” or “alert” tone.