NEW YORK — Police officers first deployed the earsplitting beeps against protesters more than a decade ago in Pittsburgh: painfully loud noises emitted from a powerful speaker atop a police vehicle. This crowd-control device is known informally as a “sound cannon.”
Since then, the items, called Long Range Acoustic Devices, or LRADs, have provided a soundtrack to marches and demonstrations in New York, Portland, Oregon, and other cities. They have functioned as giant megaphones to give commands, but also produced shrieks that can be louder than a lawn mower or a police siren.
Now, the New York City Police Department has agreed in a legal settlement to stop using the shrill beeping — referred to as the “deterrent” or “alert” tone — becoming one of the first big-city departments to do so.
The legal settlement, filed with the court Monday, comes five years after a group of demonstrators and photographers sued the city in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, saying they had experienced migraines, sinus pain, dizziness, facial pressure and ringing in their ears after being exposed to blasts of high-pitched beeps from a hand-held LRAD in midtown Manhattan in 2014.
One plaintiff, Anika Edrei, a photography student at the time, experienced a migraine headache for about a week after being exposed to the device in 2014 and steered clear of protests for some time after that, according to the lawsuit.
“I was worried about getting injured again,” Edrei said. “It definitely had a chilling effect.”
Under the terms of the settlement, police officers will still be able to make voice announcements on the devices, but the painful “alert tone” will be banned.
The city will also pay a total of $98,000 in damages to five plaintiffs and $650,000 in legal fees to their lawyers, according to court documents.
As part of the deal, the police have agreed to add a section to the department’s administrative guide on when and how to use the devices. Some of the new language will say that police supervisors and department lawyers may authorize their use, but that officers “must make reasonable efforts to maintain minimum safe distances between the LRAD and all persons within its cone of sound.”
The department has also agreed to change its training materials on the devices and provide lawyers for the people who sued with details of those proposed amendments before implementing them.
The lawyers — Gideon Oliver, Elena Cohen and Michael Decker — said in an email they would circulate the new training materials, “providing some degree of transparency in a process that normally occurs behind closed doors and without any community input.”
The lawyers said it appeared that the police in New York had used the deterrent tone sparingly, if at all, since the lawsuit was filed.
The Police Department and the New York City Law Department did not immediately comment.
The LRAD was developed in part as a response to a terrorist attack on a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, off the coast of Yemen in 2000. It is capable of projecting a narrowly focused beam of sound loud enough to repel potential attackers and has been used to defend cruise ships and tankers against pirates.
But the devices have also been marketed to American police departments. In 2020, the company that produces them, Genasys, said agencies and departments in more than 450 U.S. cities used the devices.
News reports have described widespread use of the devices to transmit announcements in cities and towns such as Rapid City, South Dakota, where one was used to broadcast a recorded message from a woman to her teenage grandson, whom the police wanted to question in connection with a shooting.One of the first reported uses of the shrill tones in the nation came in 2009, during protests in Pittsburgh connected to the Group of 20 meetings. Demonstrators, journalists and onlookers fled, and some used moistened tissues or filters from discarded cigarette butts as improvised earplugs. The city later paid $72,000 to a university professor who said her hearing had been damaged.
Last summer and fall, as Black Lives Matter rallies swept the country, use of the sharp beeping tones was reported during protests in cities including Rochester, New York, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The New York City Police Department bought two of the devices for $70,000 in 2004 as part of its preparations for the Republican National Convention, held that year at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. At the time, police officials said they would be used only for announcements and the deterrent function would not be employed.
The first sustained use of the deterrent function in New York appeared during a wave of protests in 2014, after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict an officer who had placed Eric Garner in a chokehold and caused his death.
The bulky, square LRAD used in New York during those protests can produce sound of up to 137 decibels at one meter, according to an instructor’s guide created by the Police Department in 2018, which was produced as evidence in the lawsuit. That guide describes a level of 130 decibels as the “pain threshold.”
According to the suit, officers used the device around 57th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, sometimes turning it toward protesters who were within 10 feet while “repeatedly firing its so-called ‘deterrent’ tone.” That violated the protesters’ constitutional rights, the suit argued.
The city responded that the use of the device had been “objectively reasonable,” because protesters had been blocking traffic; some had also thrown bags of garbage in the air and had hurled what were believed to be glass bottles toward police officers making arrests.
In 2017, Judge Robert Sweet ruled that use of an LRAD did not violate the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights of the demonstrators who had sued. But he also likened the devices to “concussion grenades” and found that there was an arguable claim that their use violated the 14th Amendment rights of the protesters to equal protection and due process.