Conversations with 911 operators may soon be closed to the public, under a bill scheduled to come up today in the state legislature.
Tennessee could join six other states in restricting the release of the tapes of emergency calls, a move that supporters say protects the safety and privacy of 911 callers. But the measure also could reduce public scrutiny of 911 operators, making it harder to detect mistakes and misconduct in responses to emergencies, says an opponent of the bill.
"It's a government-funded function with services that the public relies on," said Frank Gibson, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. "If it all gets closed, there would be no public oversight by citizens and the press."
State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, plans to present the legislation, Senate Bill 1665, at a meeting this morning of the Senate State and Local Government Committee. The bill would require outside parties to get a court order or written permission from callers before 911 systems would release tapes of calls.
The measure is meant to keep media outlets from rebroadcasting 911 calls that would embarrass or upset the caller and to protect callers from harassment or intimidation from people named in the call, Tracy said.
"If it's a situation where a person wants to keep it private, we need to keep it private," he said.
6 states have similar laws
The bill is also backed by the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, the state agency that oversees 911 systems statewide. Alabama, Wyoming and four other states have similar laws on the books.
"Believe it or not, there are other people who know our public records law, and they go down and get the record and strongly suggest to people that they not make 911 calls to report suspicious activity," said Andy Spears, the board's director of government and external affairs. "We want people to know that when they call 911, that it's a safe call."
But the bill also would keep emergency services from having to give out information about their response, Gibson said. Such information has been used to show that responses have been mishandled.
"Say you're a parent, and your child is hurt, and it takes 45 minutes for them to respond," he said. "Should you be forced to hire a lawyer and go to court and get the records to show why it took them 45 minutes to get there?"911
Gibson said the bill may also shield computer logs and other information associated with the call from public disclosure. But Spears said that only the audiotape itself would be sealed and that his agency would advise 911 systems to seek callers' permission to release the tape whenever asked.
"If I don't think 911 handled it correctly, I'm absolutely going to go public," Spears said.
The bill must clear the State and Local Government Committee before it can go to the full Senate for a vote. The state House of Representatives has not taken up the measure.
Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.