Should the Newtown 911 Tapes Have Been Released?

Sandy Hook RibbonIt has been almost one year since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  The events of that day will forever be ingrained into the psyche and memories of the American public.  The shooting sparked outrage over current, lax gun laws, pleas to finally tackle mental health issues, whether the school should be reopened (it has since been decided to be demolished) and now the latest battle is over the release of the harrowing 911 tapes. 

Opponents to the release lost their battle and the tapes were released yesterday to the public because of the Freedom of Information Act.  The tapes can be readily heard on a multitude of news sites.  The judge said part of the reasoning to the release was so that law officials could analyze the tapes and better prevent such mass shootings.

There has been a debate amongst the populace as to whether the tapes should have been released.  Some argue that to prevent the release would infringe on the Freedom of Information Act.  Any infringement now could set a precedent for future pieces of information.  Others argue that there is no good that can come out of hearing the tapes.  The release of the tapes would only be detrimental to the grieving families.  They think it is insensitive to not make exceptions to the law in this specific case.

I tend to be somewhere in the middle on this issue.  I will not be listening to the calls.  I tend to agree that no good could come out of us, the general public, listening to them.  It really would only be to satisfy ones curiosity.  If the tapes really could help law officials, then why not only release them to those departments.

Earlier this year, there was outcry over releasing photos of a dead Osama bin Laden.  The courts in the end ruled not to release them.  I think there are circumstances in which some information should not be made public.  Imagine if your child had died at Sandy Hook, would you want these tapes released?  Just because there is freedom of information, it shouldn’t neglect compassion.  There is no practical reasoning for the American public to have access to these tapes.

I am glad that news programs that I have watched haven’t played the tapes.  You for the most part have to go online to listen to them.  I also don’t understand why only the transcript couldn’t have been released.  To me there is a difference between the transcript and actually hearing it play out in real-time.

What do you think?

Should these tapes have been released?  Should there be any exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act?


Twitter: @adrakontaidis & @talkrealdebate


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About adrakontaidis

A conservative who doesn't pander to the GOP.

5 responses to “Should the Newtown 911 Tapes Have Been Released?”

  1. JF Owen says :

    I will freely admit that this is an ethical and moral conundrum. Personally, i won’t listen to them either. But, the Freedom of Information Act exists to provide transparency. If we, as a people, start deciding which material will and won’t be available, where does that end?

    Our government already hides too much questionable information behind the label of “national security.” I hesitate to give them another label that could be corrupted to hide even more.

    A thought provoking question and one that there is no easy answer for.

    • realtalkrealdebate says :

      Completely understand your position. Exactly why I was hesitant to be completely against the release. Couldn’t they only release the transcripts. Listening to the tapes is worse in my opinion.

  2. Kamil Zawadzki says :

    I definitely think it was good that the tapes were released. Public record is public record. The public has a right to seek access to that.

    Personally, I don’t see too much of a difference between reading the transcript and listening to the call as far as respecting the feelings of the families of the victims… Either way, it’s a person’s moments of terror laid out in front of you.
    At the same time, it is more intense to HEAR it. That, however, can also add further context that pure type might not.

    Now, sad and tragic as that day was, the 911 tapes are public record.
    I don’t mean this to insinuate that the tragedy of the Newtown families is insignificant… but there are so any cases — from deliberate murders to accidents — in which people die/are killed and/or injured.
    Again, not to sound crass, but why should the Newtown 911 tapes be blocked from the public while Joe Schmoe calling to report a deadly car crash is not? Is it not still tragic that the driver of the car Joe Schmoe was calling about perished? That person was still somebody’s parent or child or sibling. Why would we not give that extra consideration to THAT family?

    As JF Owen said, where would it end?
    Public record is public record.

    That being said, public record should be handled carefully.

    As far as the media goes, most outlets have not aired the tapes — though a few have put up links to people who are interested in hearing them.
    As far as the media goes, airing the tapes on the news or publishing the transcript on the front page should only happen if it sheds new light on what happened and adds something to the story of what happened there. You don’t run or publish that stuff just for the sake of doing so — that’s sensationalism and it does kind of make a horrifying phone call a sideshow.
    But if something in there does advance the developments, the public has a right to know.

    We talked about this in our newsroom– and we agreed that if it was up to us, we would listen to and scrutinize the content of the tapes and decide accordingly.

    We had a situation recently where we got ahold of the 911 tapes from a very bad situation (won’t get into details here). We got ahold of that tape about a week after another station in our market. They ran it instantly. We did not. Our news director and assistant news director listened to the tapes and discussed it and decided that airing them on our newscasts wouldn’t advance the ‘story’ at all and would just instead risk capitalizing on the fear and terror of the person making the call.

    The comparison to the Osama bin Laden photos doesn’t hold water for me, though. After all, we’re not talking about releasing the photos of the childrens’ and teachers’ dead bodies. OBL photos were not inherently public record in the first place. A 911 call is different. Hell, just get a police scanner and flip it on. You can hear bits and pieces of what the cops respond to. That’s public.

    The public should have access to public information– and that access should be used wisely, especially by us in the media (which, as you said, the media has been careful about this).

    • realtalkrealdebate says :

      Sorry it’s taken so long to respond. Been on an unplanned hiatus.

      Good point. But why should any call be made public? I know if I was calling 911 about the death of a family member I wouldn’t want that made public.

      • Kamil Zawadzki says :

        Making 911 calls confidential, especially if it’s a blanket decision by a government (local, state or national) to make all 911 calls confidential, can unfortunately be a very slippery slope.
        Making such a decision brings a serious risk to transparency; the public has a right to know that their public services, especially the safety agencies, are indeed at work. It brings clarity to when police or emergency services DO respond to a death or crime call. It helps ensure their accountability.

        A person calling about death or other injury of a loved one is OF COURSE in distress and I don’t blame them if they would be upset or angry if their moment of pain and terror was broadcast — I think that’s understandable. Yet, not every person, including in Newtown, was adamant that the 911 calls be sealed.

        But in such calls, questions can and do arise. How did the 911 dispatcher respond? Were they helpful? Did they send word to EMS, police, Fire Dept. or whatever other agency so that they can help? Were they doing their best to help the caller through the situation? What about the person making the call — or at least what was heard on their end of the line? That can help explain the situation of whatever was going on, and if questions arise (such as “was it a crime or an accident?”) it can help acquit the innocent or convict the guilty.

        These questions can be CRUCIAL, especially when you’re calling about your loved one being hurt and on the brink of death or dead already, to ensure if you got the help that you needed and were entitled to as a member of the community. If 911 calls are sealed, especially by blanket legislation, those questions can be much harder to answer. Public record helps prove whether or not the public agencies and governments are doing their jobs.

        Let’s say 911 records become confidential, the public record no longer being public. If you called and your dispatcher was totally dismissive of the whole situation and didn’t even bother getting help out, how would you prove it? What would compel the relevant agencies to be kept on task and make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again? You can’t prove it. It’s your word against theirs. It would likely impede an investigation and justice. It’s a breeding ground for state-sanctioned corner-cutting and corruption. On the flip-side, if the caller later claimed the 911 dispatch ignored their situation and was negligent, but the opposite was true, the public record would be confirmation of what REALLY happened.

        This isn’t just a series of “what-if questions.”

        Here’s a TIME piece on the precarious balance of 911 calls, which reads, in part:

        “McFarland’s girlfriend died on Sept. 4 in Mashpee, Mass., officially of choking “on a food bolus while intoxicated.” Now, two months later, McFarland is hitting the publicity circuit in his bid to see the emergency response system improved — whether that means getting the city to be more vigilant about street signs, or getting rid of hapless dispatchers and replacing them with people who will offer advice about, say, the Heimlich maneuver when someone is choking. In either case, his greatest weapon is the tragedy of his own phone call, and his situation is a good example of what oversight would be lost if 911 calls didn’t remain publicly accessible records.

        There is certainly an argument to be made for keeping them out of the public sphere. After all, 911 calls are records that often capture people in their most vulnerable states. And the media isn’t afraid of playing them — over and over again — for sensationalism’s sake, even when oversight of emergency response is a non-issue. (This one, from 2009, in which a woman screams as her pet chimpanzee tears the face off her friend, comes to mind.) At least four states already exempt 911 calls from their public records acts, and as many considered similar bills this year.

        Balance is key with all public records: There needs to be thoughtfulness to meet transparency halfway if the whole system is to work and remain as open as possible. As a professor of mine once said, “There is something deeply un-American about taking public officials at their word.” And if public records get abused too much, that’s all Americans will have. McFarland’s call is definitely a score for the Sunshine camp — but it’s worth remembering that his record should be aired in moderation and that plenty of other 911 calls shouldn’t be used at all.”

        The public 911 call helped McFarland campaign for improved emergency response systems in his community. It was proof that there was a major issue that needed to be addressed — for the public good. The pain and anguish was heard on the phone call, and I’m sure it continued. But with that call as public evidence of a negligent or ill-equipped response, he was able to use his anguish to seek badly-needed improvements.

        And the piece concludes by acknowledging that such calls shouldn’t be aired on repeat, and there isn’t always a need to put a spotlight on 911 calls. In other words, the media shouldn’t air every call and everyone doesn’t necessarily have to hear them.
        But that still doesn’t make a case for making them arbitrarily confidential.

        I’ll also cite The Hartford Courant’s Editorial on why 911 calls should be public record. They were among the newspapers covering Newtown in-depth. This piece mentioned Newtown throughout but went on to make a more general case:

        “People need to see and hear how their government is working — especially public safety agencies, which have enormous power. People also have a right to know about horrific crimes committed on public property.

        And precisely because emergency calls involve life-and-death matters, those calls need to be open for public inspection.

        In 1999, The Courant looked at 911 calls and other records and found significant ambulance delays around the state. Reporters found that “the state health department makes no effort to track response times” and that “some complaints have languished for years without being resolved.” A state investigation ensued, and the president of a major ambulance company resigned.

        These discoveries could not have been made if those records were private.

        Airing 911 calls reveals not just mistakes. The calls also show professional heroes, such as the Georgia school clerk who talked a shooter into surrendering and the dispatchers who, with nerves of steel, tried to get Hartford Distributors killer Omar Thornton to reveal his location.

        In the case of the awful crime in Newtown, police and prosecutors are dragging their feet on producing an investigatory report and defying the law by withholding the 911 tapes. This doesn’t boost public confidence.”

        Another piece for consideration from Pulitzer-winning journalist Connie Schultz from back in 2009 reads, in part:

        “And broadcasting 911 calls is an issue of public safety and public accountability. The content of 911 calls reveals when dispatchers fail to perform their jobs and when they are heroic. The calls can back up legitimate complaints about police response and prove when such claims are false.

        Sometimes, publicizing the calls helps the police do their jobs. As the Marietta Times recently noted, before police arrested a man for making bomb threats against public buildings, they made the calls public to see whether anyone recognized the voice.”

        Schultz goes on to say that journalists should be careful and ask if it is necessary to broadcast such calls. Again, are they considering airing the calls to shed new light on an event — or just for bragging rights against the competition? Ethics are key.

        Nobody is going to go digging into every 911 call to hear distressed people crying about an emergency just for shits and giggles or just to violate anyone’s privacy and make light of their moment of fear.

        But sealing the records takes away even that decision from people and organizations whose jobs are, among others, to keep the public informed and to be watchdogs of public/government entities and serve their communities. And, again, what about accountability?
        We should be able to — cautiously — trust our governments. Public record helps determine whether or not that trust is earned.

        People want open government and accountability and dislike backroom deals or shady conspiracies — but accountability and transparency don’t just “happen.” And politics is one thing. Public safety is another. We can barely find an honest politician to trust. But we MUST be able to trust our public safety officers — and have a way to take them to task if they aren’t earning that trust.

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