Authorities in Delray Beach, Fla., released audio from a 911 call Tuesday in which a day-care-center employee described finding the body of a 2-year-old girl in one of the center’s vans. A few weeks ago, a 911 tape in which a teenaged girl can be heard saying, “We’re going underwater right now,” moments before she drowned, was released in Iowa. Don’t people who call 911 have any privacy at all?
Not really. Since 911 tapes are considered public records, callers have little or no control over their distribution. Before releasing tapes, police often redact personal information like phone numbers and addresses. But the rest of the calls are usually fair game for any Freedom of Information Act request. Callers typically cannot request additional privacy even during the call itself. New York City cited privacy concerns in its refusal to release the 911 tapes from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. After the New York Timesand families of Sept. 11 victims sued, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled the city had to make the tapes available but allowed callers’ voices to be removed. (Only the 911 operators can be heard.) Unedited tapes were provided to the families of the callers.
It’s unclear whether the dissemination of 911 tapes is more common now than in the past, but several high-profile celebrity tapes may have helped raise awareness of the practice. Since January, six states—Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, and Wisconsin—have introduced legislation to exempt 911 calls from public records. (Another four—Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming—have already banned public tapes.) State legislators who support such laws refer to cases like that of a North Carolina woman who found her daughter beaten to death and called 911—only to hear her call replayed later that day on the news. She is said to have vomited as a result. They worry that these episodes may discourage other people from calling for help. Press organizations and activist groups favoring open government counter that access to 911records discourages bad behavior by dispatchers. A New Jersey police dispatcher was fired in 2007, for example, after tapes confirmed she had scolded the victim of a violent crime for yelling, even while the crime was being perpetrated.
For the time being, recorded emergency calls remain in the spotlight. That’s partly because they’re so cheap to acquire, and partly because they make for instant celebrity news. In the last year, gossip site TMZ.com has posted the 911 calls made on behalf of deceased stars Brittany Murphy, Gary Coleman, and Michael Jackson. Emergency dispatcher tapes have also spawned jokey human-interest stories. A local Fox news affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio, helped make a celebrity of 43-year-old Bernadette Music, who earned her 15 minutes in August after being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for calling 911 to ask for a date. In 2005, tapes circulated of a petulant woman who complained to a 911 dispatcher that Burger King wouldn’t serve her a Western Barbecue Burger. Many of these tapes are available at 911callers.com, which purports to be a record of citizens’$2 911 abuses but functions more as an archive of bizarre pleas for help involving food and/or animals.
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Explainer thanks David Cuillier of the University of Arizona. Thanks also to reader David Gordon for asking the question.