Sunday, July 5, 2009

911 recordings

You may be wondering, as I did recently, what - other than satisfying morbid curiosity - is driving the release in the media of 911 recordings and transcripts. We are proffered these agonizingly personal conversations on the evening news broadcast sometimes as soon as the story breaks. We hear the back-and-forth between the 911 operator and an individual who is likely experiencing one of the worst moments of his or her life. Consider these examples: Billy Mays' wife wakes up to find him dead in bed and we are all privy to the offer made by the 911 operator to talk her through resuscitation, and her heartwrenching reply, "It's too late." USA Today offers both a transcript and an audio clip of a 5-year-old on the phone to show her precociousness in reporting the deaths of her parents by relaying, "I think there is a bullet on the floor....And there is blood....I think they're dead." We can't help but strain to hear the sounds of the rampaging chimpanzee in the background as his owner frantically pleads for help by screaming, "He's ripping her face off." And we wince when we hear a live-in boyfriend moan to a Florida dispatcher, "Our stupid snake got out in the middle of the night and strangled the baby!"
The 911 tapes are released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. This legislation, which allows certain exceptions, applies to federal governmental agencies, but similar laws have been enacted by the individual states. The statutes - and therefore the release of 911 audio - are intended to keep the government transparent, to reveal any mistakes or questionable behavior by emergency personnel. For instance, the screams of a murder victim during a 911 call in Wisconsin call into question the lack of immediate police response. And of course the stupidity of some callers receives wide publicity - hopefully reducing the number of emergency calls placed to report being shortchanged at McDonald's. Emergency call centers handle an incredible number of incoming calls - 31,000 per day at the Brooklyn call center pictured above.
The state and federal courts uphold the idea that "The 911 call is a public record," and order release of the tape even when callers incriminate themselves, making it difficult to find jury pools when they are brought to trial. Now that I understand the rationale behind their release, I concur in the interest of public safety, as long as victim privacy is respected (redacting names, addresses, and phone numbers) and sensationalism is avoided.

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