9-1-1 calls need an emergency rescue

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schwager-newBy Mary Schwager

“9-1-1, this line is recorded, what’s your emergency?” What’s my emergency? State and local government’s lack of knowledge of the Massachusetts Public Records Law!

Are actual 911 call recordings considered a public record? You may be thinking, “Yes!, I hear those all the time.” They’re routinely used by media outlets in Massachusetts and across the country. Those infamous calls on crime shows with some poor person yelling about a robbery, and compelling calls on news shows from people trapped in cars. But did the dispatch centers just do the media a favor releasing the actual calls or are they specifically a public record?

I recently made dozens of requests to communities across Massachusetts for 911 call recordings. Many police departments sent them right over. But others expressed confusion about the law. “Um, I don’t think we can release 911 calls,” is what I would hear along with, “Ah, I’m not sure if we’re even required to keep those or how far our recordings go back.”

First I would give them my speech, in the nicest of ways, about keeping 911 calls. “There’s a very specific state law that says recordings must be kept for 12 months…” (MGL Chapter 6A, Section 18G as amended by Chapter 223 of the Acts of 2008.)

Then I would say, “And 911 calls areconsidered a public record and are releasable…” Most of the time I’d hear, “Let me check, let me call you back, let me ask the legal department.” (Words of doom, especially if your deadline is near. The “tick, tick, tick” from the clock on your wall somehow grows louder as your tax dollars pay for all of this.)

Preparing for a “FOIA FIGHT,” I began to search for some ‘chapter and verse’ where these calls are specifically covered under Massachusetts law. Sure, there’s always the possibility a call would fall under some permitted exemption — it’s part of an ongoing police investigation or there’s personal or medical information on the tape. I understand why those might be off-limits. But it appears 911 calls are not specifically mentioned. There is a reference to police records and the law cites “recorded tapes.” I could make a strong argument they fall under that category.

Wanting to be armed with information, I decided to go to the top. On October 29, 2008 I contacted the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office, which mediates disputes over publics records issues. No one got back to me. I called back a couple of days later. They said they’d check. No one got back to me. I figured I should be patient as they may have been just a bit busy since there was that, ah, election going on. So I waited. Still nothing.

Time passed. The country elected a new president. I still waited. There were no huge contested races or voter problems, I figured the dust had settled, so I began calling again. No one got back to me. Finally, I spoke to the secretary of state’s media relations person. We had a very intelligent conversation about the topic–and his opinion was that only transcripts of the calls were public record and police could redact exempted info out of the record before it’s released.

I said, “Is that the law? Where does it say that?” He wasn’t sure.

I asked if police had just been doing media outlets a favor all these years by releasing the calls? He thinks that was the case… that 911 calls are kind of a gray area.

I said I heard that some police departments claim to have a blanket policy where they just don’t release any 911 calls. The Secretary of State’s PR person thought they can’t do that.

After we batted the issue around for some time, we agreed that neither of us were attorneys or legal experts on this. I asked him to check with someone in his office to get an opinion on it.

I keep calling back and I still don’t have their opinion. Did I stump the Secretary of State? While I wait, what do you think? I’m opening this one up for discussion.

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