While several states already have such bans in place, a number of legislatures are considering such moves because of an incident in North Carolina.
According to Associated Press (AP) reports, Linda Casey dialed 911 and screamed “Oh God” over and over into the phone after she found her daughter beaten to death in their driveway.
Later that day, she was watching television station WSPA in nearby Spartanburg, S.C., only to hear her own frantic voice coming from the broadcast, screaming “Oh God.”
According to the AP reports, she became so distraught at hearing the broadcast that she vomited.
Now, lawmakers in several states are justifiably outraged. Unfortunately, they are using the outrage as the impetus for banning the public release of 911 tapes.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. What WSPA did was, in fact, outrageous. There was no public good being served. It was not journalism. It was cheap sensationalist broadcasting designed, no doubt, to shock viewers and maybe bring in higher ratings for a later broadcast.
However, states, including North Carolina, should not ban the public release of these tapes. Doing so could easily lead to cover-ups of botched calls.
According to AP reports, a Detroit dispatcher in 2006 scolded a 5-year-old boy for “playing on the phone” while his mother lay unconscious. When police finally arrived, the boy’s mother was dead. In a 2008 call in Memphis, Tenn., a 911 operator asked, “What’s your emergency,” then fell asleep.
More recently, a Pittsburgh man died after 10 911 calls spread out over 30 hours went unheeded. The calls did happen during a heavy snowfall there Feb. 6-7, but a review of the 911 calls revealed that ambulances twice made it to within a quarter mile of his house, and one other time were actually within a block of his house, but emergency service responders refused to walk the rest of the way.
The review also showed that as each 911 shift changed, details of the previous calls from this person were not related, so later calls from this person were treated as first-time calls for emergency help.
If 911 calls were not subject to public access, these sorts of things might never become public knowledge, and this sort of thing would likely be more prevalent.
It can be difficult, as a lawmaker, to balance privacy concerns with the right of the public to know what is going on with government agencies. Broadcast media outlets should be more responsible than WSPA was, but this is an issue where the public right to know — and protect itself — outweighs that right to privacy.
We hope lawmakers in North Carolina and elsewhere will keep these recordings public, and we have equal hope that broadcast outlets will be sensitive and ethical in how they use these recordings.