April: Don’t end access to 911 calls

2010 Columns


Wisconsin lawmakers are considering a bill to bar public access to recordings of 911 emergency calls. These audio recordings would be replaced with transcripts.

As a broadcast news professional, I understand that 911 calls may be painful for families of victims. That’s why a lot of thought already goes into deciding whether and how to use these recordings.

At WMTV NBC15 in Madison, where I work, these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. We do not sensationalize 911 calls. We do not air these recordings just because we have them.

In every case, we ask a series of questions: Does the 911 audio have news value? Does it help viewers understand the story? Does it expose wrongdoing or show appropriate response?

We also ask: Are we exploiting the caller or the situation? Is the 911 audio too graphic?

Often these recordings are aired because they shed light on how public safety calls are handled. In November 2008, the Dane County 911 center received two calls regarding a disturbance at a Madison park. But no officers were sent. An hour and a half later, one person was discovered dead.

In this case, the 911 recordings revealed that the center violated policy requiring a response to multiple calls reporting the same problem.

Dane County’s 911 center also took heat for its handling of a call from Brittany Zimmermann, a UW-Madison student murdered in her downtown Madison apartment in 2008. The dispatch center received a call from her cell phone at about the time the murder was taking place. But the 911 operator couldn’t determine there was an emergency before the call was disconnected, so officers weren’t dispatched.

Police who reviewed the call say the operator missed significant background sounds, including a scream and sounds of a struggle. The operator was disciplined, but the call has still not been released because the case remains unsolved.

A transcript would not tell the whole story of what the operator heard or should have heard. If this were to become the new standard, it would leave the public in the dark in some important situations.

Earlier, the 911 center released a recording of the call made by Zimmermann ’s fiancé, when he found her body. My station decided against using it on the air. Instead, the audio clip was posted on our website so viewers could decide for themselves if they wanted to hear it.

Under the proposed new law, even this would not be allowed.

Some 911 calls shed light on the appropriateness of police responses. In March 2004, a man with a knife attacked employees at a daycare center in Madison. The suspect then barricaded himself in a room with young children.

Police officers shot and killed him. The 911 calls affirmed that the officer tried to get the man to cooperate, supporting the official conclusion that the use of force was justified.

In this case, it was an important part of the story. Transcripts would not have let the public hear how little time officers had to make a life and death decision.

In a recent interview with the Appleton Post-Crescent, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen expressed concern was for victims and the families who are under duress when they make calls, and the effect making the calls public would have on them.

We in the media agree these are important concerns, and we always keep them in mind in our coverage. But I believe the public’s right to know vital information about the public safety process is at times more important.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), dedicated to open meetings and open records. Chris Gegg is news director at WMTV NBC15 in Madison.