COLUMBIA — When MU professor Karen Piper watches TV, she has to turn on the subtitles. During group meetings, hearing the speaker can be difficult.
Since 2009, Piper has suffered from what her doctors say is the same type of hearing loss that can accumulate naturally over time. Hers, however, was not caused by age, but by an acoustic crowd control device used by Pittsburgh police at a G-20 summit protest in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Sept. 24, 2009.
The incident was the first time a long-range acoustic device had been used against civilians in the United States.
Frequently used by naval vessels, the devices, known as LRADs, can be used for communication and as acoustic warning devices capable of emitting more than 150 decibels. Numerous YouTube videos of the incident show protesters fleeing from a truck-mounted LRAD after the device emitted a loud, high-pitched siren.
Three weeks ago, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the city on Piper's behalf. The suit is the first in the U.S. dealing with LRADs.
Piper was living in Pittsburgh at the time, participating in a one-year fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University. She said she heard people talking about a protest at the G-20 summit that day and decided to watch from behind police lines and do research for a book she is writing on global financial institutions and water privatization.
"I decided to go down there just to see what was going on," Piper said. "I was hoping just to get pictures and see what protesters' signs said.
"It just was a bunch of people standing around peacefully. They were just a ragtag group of kids."
Piper said she decided to leave the area after she heard an officer say they were about to use tear gas on the protesters. She said officers began corralling protesters between a truck bearing the LRAD and the tear gas.
She said she asked police what route she should take, and they pointed her directly in line with the LRAD.
"The sad thing is, there wasn't any warning," she said. "I didn't know it would permanently injure me."
Piper described the effects as excruciating.
"I had lots of pain my ears, and my ear started leaking fluid," she said. "I felt dizzy and nauseous, so I went and sat down."
After she was finally able to leave the protest, she said she went to urgent care, thinking something was wrong with her left ear. The hospital referred her to a hearing specialist.
"That was the doctor who said I'd had permanent hearing damage," she said.
She sent an email to the city explaining her condition four days later. She was surprised and displeased with their response.
"They said, 'You responded exactly as expected to the LRAD,'" Piper said.
Piper contacted the ACLU in October 2009, and the organization lodged a formal complaint with the city that year. Not satisfied with the city's response, ACLU attorneys filed a lawsuit three weeks ago.
Pittsburgh Solicitor Dan Regan said the city was not in a position to discuss the incident.
"The complaint is being reviewed, and the city is deciding how to respond," Regan said.
Witold Walczak, one of the the attorneys representing Piper, said she wasn't the only person from the protest who has complained about damaged hearing.
"We have heard from a number of doctors who have had people coming in to complain about hearing damage after the incident," Walczak said.
He added that police officers were among those who complained to doctors.
"Piper's case really demonstrates the dangers of using this weapon because it's so imprecise," Walczak said. "There is collateral damage to innocents."
Piper said she is now writing the conclusion to her book, which includes details of the protest. She said the ringing in her ears that continued for months after the incident made it difficult for her to work. She said she worked at coffee shops to drown it out.
Piper is seeking damages for medical expenses and lost income due to delays in finishing her book. She said she doesn't know the exact amount she'll seek. She said she is outraged about the situation and doesn't want it to happen to anyone else.
"These are just young people who could change their minds later, but they will have this injury for the rest of their lives," she said.