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States push to exempt 911 calls from records laws

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  1. Freedom of Information
A decade ago, reporters could expect to have access to 911 calls to file accurate stories, gain insight into crimes…

A decade ago, reporters could expect to have access to 911 calls to file accurate stories, gain insight into crimes and monitor emergency response time — but more and more states are pushing for that to change.

Alabama, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida are among the states that have proposed legislation to limit the media’s access to emergency-call recordings. The specifics of the bills are different but the intentions are the same. Open-government advocates say the trend is a worrying shift away from transparency.

"By examining 911 calls we can see how the public agencies are doing," said David Hudson from the First Amendment Foundation. "If you close those records, the public certainly loses the ability to monitor government agencies."

Alabama’s bill calls for all 911 recordings to be private and exempt from freedom-of-information laws unless a court order is issued. Transcripts could still be obtained. The bill’s proponents say it would protect the privacy of individuals who may otherwise be deterred from calling 911.

"Nationally there is a growing concern about the release of audiotapes that don’t involve newsworthy people or events — just things that people like to hear because of their sensational nature," Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, which drafted legislation, told the Associated Press.  "There is a concern nationally that these kinds of things are having a chilling effect on people’s willingness to call 911."

Ohio state representatives share that concern. It’s the state’s second attempt to restrict 911 recordings and is the only state effort that would levy monetary fines. The Ohio bill would ban public access to recordings but allow transcripts to be read on air. Violations would cost media outlets $10,000, The Crescent-News reported.

Media organizations say transcripts are not the same as access to the recording. Radio and television reporters will often use snippets of audio taken from emergency calls to tell important stories.

"Being able to air the recordings in many ways is critical to tell the story," said Christine Merritt, Executive Vice President of Ohio’s Association of Broadcasters. "The airing of the recording can affect policy changes… and, well, the $10,000 penalty — that’s huge."

Merritt cited a 911 recording of a man who didn’t speak English, but was trying to explain that his daughter needed help. The man hung up in frustration and tried to take his daughter to the hospital, but she died on the way. A broadcast story on the call lead to more foreign-language services and improved dispatch performance. 

The bill is currently in committee.

A committee in the Wisconsin Assembly passed a similar bill last month. Like in Alabama, the legislation would keep all audio recordings confidential and a transcript would be available upon request. Current proposed amendments to the bill would allow the media to inspect, but not to copy or disseminate.

Probably the most restrictive of these state measures is a bill in the Florida Legislature that would make audio recordings confidential — unless obtained by court order — and would only release transcripts to interested parties when the recording was 60 days old. The bill was passed by a House committee and will move to the floor for a full vote.

"The real point here is this bill gets to the core of sensationalism,” State Rep. Kevin Ambler told the Miami Herald. "This preserves the right to know while [eliminating] the profiteering off the sensationalism of others.”

Critics of the measure say current Florida law, which prohibits the disclosure of personal information when airing 911 recordings, adequately protects individuals’ privacy.

"The public interest in hearing the call clearly outweighs any privacy interests," said Hudson.