Editorial: Keep 911 calls open to serve public

The following editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on April 4, 2017.

Most of us rarely feel the need to call 911 and summon the police, the fire department or an ambulance crew. But when we do, it’s typically a critical situation that serves as a test of whether our emergency services are responsive to the public’s needs.

That’s why civil liberties groups, government oversight organizations and the news media oppose a bill in the Iowa Senate that would keep secret many of the calls citizens make to 911.

The bill, which has already passed the House without a single dissenting vote, seeks to treat all 911 calls involving injuries or medical conditions as confidential “medical records” that are exempt from disclosure under Iowa’s Open Records Law. The secrecy would apply not just to the audio recordings of 911 calls, but also to transcripts and to any video recordings of calls.

What’s more, calls that are either made by a minor or pertain to a minor would also be kept secret. It’s not at all clear what would happen in cases where an adult calls 911 to report a crime and, as is typically the case, the involvement of minors has yet to be established or ruled out. It’s possible that the mere potential for a minor to be the subject of a 911 call would result in the vast majority of such calls being kept confidential, at least initially.

It’s also not clear whether anonymous 911 calls, in which the age of the caller is undetermined, would be forever sealed. (911 systems can pinpoint the location of a call, but not the identity of the person making that call.)

Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel, says the bill is intended to protect from disclosure “anything that would be linked with audio or video” of a 911 call, including video from body cameras or security cameras at emergency-dispatch centers. “We have an obligation to our constituents to make sure we’re protecting their medical information,” he says.

The trouble with this reasoning should be obvious: When people call 911, it’s not to relay their medical history to a dispatcher, it’s to request assistance. In the course of that call, they may very well tell the dispatcher someone has collapsed, is suffering chest pains, was shot or stabbed, or is behaving erratically.

But if that constitutes a “medical record” that must be kept confidential to protect Iowans, will the Iowa Legislature next attempt to seal from public view all police reports and court records that refer to injuries and deaths that stem from assault, domestic abuse, police shootings, rape and murder?

This ill-conceived bill was introduced because of three accidental shootings in Tama County that killed and injured adolescent girls. Tape-recorded 911 calls revealed that in one of the cases, a vocal gun-rights advocate accidentally shot and killed his 13-year-old daughter while attempting to show her a rifle — a fact the police never made public.

After Tama County’s emergency management coordinator released the 911 recordings in response to a formal request from the Associated Press, she complained to her state lawmaker that such disclosures invaded the privacy of families and asked for a change in the law.

If anything, the Tama County cases should serve as Exhibit A as to why these recordings should remain public. As tragic as those cases are, they involve shootings that are deserving of public attention, if only so local police, prosecutors, educators, counselors, hunting organizations and gun-safety advocates can take steps to ensure there aren’t more fatalities in the months ahead.

If Iowa’s 911 calls are kept secret, the public may never learn of violent crimes in which no arrest was made, no report was filed, or no officer was dispatched. There will be no way to document what information an officer was given, or was not given, in responding to a call that later resulted in a police shooting. There will be no way to ascertain whether dispatchers acted appropriately in handling calls from citizens. There will be no way to determine whether ambulances were tardy in responding to a call.

Iowans have a right to medical privacy, but they also have a right to know whether the police and dispatch agencies in their community have the expertise, the staff, the equipment and the resources to handle life-and-death calls for assistance.

As demonstrated by decades of past practice, those rights are not in conflict with each other. Both can be protected, but only if 911 calls remain open and accessible to the public.