The state’s emergency dispatchers said Tuesday they want to exempt 911 audiotapes from Tennessee’s open records law to save distraught crime victims and their families from hearing their calls played in the media.
The policy committee of the state Emergency Communications Board voted to support state legislation to make 911 tapes inaccessible to the media and others unless the caller consents to publicly release them.
Tapes of desperate 911 calls, often with terrified pleading and cries for help, have become a staple of TV news shows. By playing the tapes, reporters sometimes expose dis-patchers who mishandle calls.
“We want to protect folks from hearing the worst phone call they ever made in their life over and over and over,” Emergency Communications Board director Lynn Questell told The City Paper.
Alabama, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin are among states that already have proposed exempting emergency call recordings from open records laws. Open-government advocates call it a troubling trend away from transparency that denies the public the right to monitor government agencies.
But Questell said 911 operators aren’t trying to hide from media scrutiny.
“We’re not trying to protect ourselves,” she said. “If you have a disgruntled caller who’s upset with the call taker, they can just consent to have the tape released to the media. It’s really about trying to have some compassion for someone who’s called 911 because they’ve had a really horrible thing happen to them.”
The legislation also is needed to protect citizens who phone 911 to report suspected terrorist behavior, Questell said.
“There are homeland security issues. They’re saying if you see anything, call in and report it. Right now, it’s all subject to the Open Records Act. People think they’re calling 911 and it’s going to be confidential. Well, it’s an open record.”