On Wednesday, a US federal judge ruled that the sound emitted from the NYPD's Long Range Acoustic Devices — portable sound cannons that blast noise — could be considered a use of force, contrary to the police department's claims. The LRAD can blast sound as loudly as 136 decibels. That's louder than a jackhammer or a jet engine and above the 120 db threshold for immediate human hearing loss.
The NYPD's dubious claim that the LRAD is a merely an "effective and safe communication tool" came in response to a lawsuit filed by protesters in 2014. The demonstrators say they suffered nerve damage, dizziness and migraines after the NYPD used the devices on them during a Black Lives Matter protest in Times Square. Video captured at the scene shows the devices in use:
The city wanted the suit thrown out because some protesters threw objects at officers and the sound "cannot be considered 'physical contact'," arguing the LRAD is "not an instrumentality of force, but a communication device".
Even without physical contact, the LRAD is capable of severe, long-lasting damage. The LRAD can instantly afflict anyone within 300m of the device with headaches and dizziness and prolonged exposure results permanent hearing loss — as it did for a protester in Pittsburgh who settled a lawsuit against the city for $US72,000 ($96,776). How on Earth would this not constitute a use of force?
In a bit of dark irony, the NYPD deployed the LRAD against protesters who flooded the streets in response to the NYPD's use of force. The 2014 Times Square protest was launched after a grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island police officer filmed choking Eric Garner while he shouted, "I can't breathe," moments before suffocating. The NYPD, it seems, responded to protests against an extralegal use of force with another extralegal use of force.
Classifying sound cannons as a "use of force" doesn't mean that the NYPD can't use them, just that they must document and justify each use. We asked the NYPD if it plans to discontinue the LRAD but had not heard back at time of writing.