Whether it's cable, local or tabloid television, producers love to play recordings of real 911 calls whenever they can. It may make dramatic television but some state's legislators argue it's an invasion of privacy for the victims and families captured on tape. Sonny Bransfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, explains why his state has drafted legislation to keep the recordings private.
BOB GARFIELD: TV producers love to play recordings of dramatic 911 calls. Last week, the most played recording was probably one of a seven-year-old boy named Carlos who hid in a bathroom to call 911 while his parents were being robbed at gunpoint. In that case, the robbers heard the kid, fled and no one was hurt. But calls with tragic endings get played endlessly, too. So, out of concern for the victim’s privacy, states like Missouri and Pennsylvania keep tapes of emergency calls private. Ohio, Wisconsin and Alabama are considering doing the same. Sonny Brasfield is the executive director of Alabama’s Association of County Commissions. He says if you’re not a public figure, your emergency calls should be private.
SONNY BRASFIELD: The legislation pending in Alabama says that the audio recording of a 911 call would only be released upon the order of a court saying that the public’s right to know exceeded the person’s right to privacy.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I have to ask you about your premise that someone who dials 911 has a right of privacy. My understanding was that when you are in contact with a law enforcement agency, that it is a public record and that it’s part of the deal from that point forward.
SONNY BRASFIELD: Whether something is a public record in each state, of course, is determined by that state’s legislature. Here in Alabama our open records law uses the word “writing” - a public writing. And so there has been some debate here as to whether or not the audio recording of a 911 call would be a public writing. And so, the bill does go on to provide that a written transcript of a call would automatically be accessible for anyone. Now, you do, I think, strike at the heart of the matter, and that is does a citizen who is otherwise not a public figure automatically lose their rights by dialing 911 to ask for help? And my opinion is very strong that a citizen who’s outside - their grandmother is being attacked by someone’s dog - I don't believe that citizen loses their right to privacy by calling 911 for help.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back on this one?
SONNY BRASFIELD: Last March, in Geneva County, there were some tragic murders down there, and where a man drove around in about a 30-mile area and killed four people, and those calls were almost immediately utilized by the news media. That was probably the issue that brought it into focus here in Alabama, but there had been a couple of other awful occurrences, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, well, this is a conundrum. You know, I must say my sympathies lie with the poor victims for whom these tapes are often gigantic insult heaped atop unspeakable injury. But one of the reasons the news media are in general against this kind of legislation is that we will have lost the opportunity to know how well our first responders are responding. Is that not a reasonable fear?
SONNY BRASFIELD: I think it certainly is a reasonable concern. And our legislation differs a little, in that we state up front affirmatively that a transcript of the call is a public record, as well as all the other related data, the times that the call came in, the times that first responders were dispatched, what time they arrived on the scene. That data is public record. We are really focused on the voice of the person who has made the 911 call. And, at least from our association here in Alabama, the county commissions are never going to support anything that would shield public knowledge about inefficiencies or of failure.
BOB GARFIELD: You say that with some confidence. My experience is that governments, given the opportunity to avoid embarrassment, or worse, will use any means at their disposal to avoid the opprobrium of the public.
SONNY BRASFIELD: Well, I think you do raise a point, but we're talking about a very small subset of the calls, those calls that do not involve a criminal investigation and do not involve a public figure. And, honestly, on those calls I, I think the public is well served by us, to stop long enough to have consideration and debate on whether or not we should protect their rights.
BOB GARFIELD: I suppose if news media had exercised just a modicum of taste and restraint when given the opportunity to air this very graphic audio, we might not be having this conversation.
SONNY BRASFIELD: I think that’s a fair statement, and my background is, is in news. But we also have to recognize that there are other ways that these recordings are disseminated, other than through what you and I would consider legitimate news organizations. Some of the calls are available for people to hear all over websites around the world, and I'm not so sure that most of the people that operate those ponder restraint very much at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I must say, in this particular case, I don't trust the media and I don't trust the commissioners. Either way, I think this is a lose-lose situation.
SONNY BRASFIELD: If you are a regular citizen who makes that call for 911, I think you lose today. People all over the world can listen to your intimate words on the worst day of your life.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Sonny, thank you very much for joining us.
SONNY BRASFIELD: Thank you, and I appreciate it very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Sonny Brasfield is executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.