Almost one year to the day of the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown (CT), the seven 9-1-1 tapes related to the murder of 20 innocent first graders and eight heroic educators have been released. On December 14, 2012, while the public watched in horror, family and friends wailed in each others’ arms and police officers, fire fighters and emergency medical professionals attempted to sort through the chaos and the pain, the Associated Press was already making its request for the tapes from Newtown Police Department. The department met the request with silence for over a month. The AP pressed on and received the same response. On January 23, 2013, they appealed to the state Freedom of Information Commission. As a former 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher, I had to choke back the indignation that I felt over the whole process and the reasoning behind the “need” to put these tragic calls out into the public sphere.
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act home page hosted by the United States Department of Justice states, “The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.” In 2012, 651,254 requests were made to the FOI Commission many of which were provoked by silence or denial by the agency that held the information. It’s fair to say that most requests made are responded to with the information being provided. 9-1-1 tapes are considered public records, so they are not exempt from FOI and the release of which has often been a subject of heated debate.
Privacy vs. Public Information
The main issue of the debate is where does public interest end and privacy begin? For example, is one citizen’s (random person) right to have the information supersede another person’s (grieving parent or 9-1-1 caller) right to not have their “story” aired on the nightly news and all over the internet? To me, a 9-1-1 call for help is very personal. Like the case in many unthinkable tragedies, the caller is in a vulnerable state reaching out in the only possible way begging for help. The 9-1-1 operator embodies the element of humanity. You call. We help. Unfortunately, as Connecticut State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky and the Newtown Police Department learned, the public trumps one person. Some states have statutes that allow the release of transcripts but not the actual tapes if there are privacy concerns. Connecticut does not have any “extended privacy protections” and makes public records available on-line. So after a year long court battle where Sedensky tried to exempt the Sandy Hook 9-1-1 tapes from FOI citing the recordings contained “information relative to child abuse” and the “chilling effect” that revealing the names of witnesses would create, the appeals court said no. On Wednesday, December 4, 2013 with 10 days until the anniversary, the tapes became available to the public. Along with the law, there seems to be three trains of thought in reference to justifying the release of the tapes: the American public’s right to know, public healing and the American public’s right to judge the police response.
Information Belongs to the People
Transparency seems to be the central focus behind the law requiring 9-1-1 tapes be released. Cristina Hassinger, daughter of Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung, expressed her feelings about the appropriateness of the release. She told CNN that knowing is better than not knowing and that the calls belong to the American public. I just can’t agree. I have a hard time understanding how 9-1-1 calls are information. What information could the public get from the calls? The media already shared what happened and all the information they gathered at the scene and from the reports which are also public record. What other information the families choose to share is their prerogative. I suppose if the 9-1-1 caller and the 9-1-1operator both felt their call should be shared, so be it. Other than that, the only reason I feel the public wants to know is for our increasing slide into a voyeuristic, reality show infused society. Shouldn’t 9-1-1 calls be a “need to know” situation like so much else in emergency services?
In one CNN report, the authors outlined two psychologist’s view on releasing the tapes. One stated the lack of ability to control for who hears the tapes would have a negative impact, especially on children. The other psychologist argued that releasing the tapes would assist in healing. Hassinger further explained that the release of the tapes will help the country deal with future shootings. Really? Did hearing the massacre at Columbine or Virginia Tech make the public feel less traumatized by Sandy Hook? Will hearing the harrowing voices from inside the besieged elementary school make another school shooting more palatable? That’s akin to saying that since the American Public went through the tragedy of 9-11 with its constant images and sounds of Ground Zero, if it happens again, it will be old hat and we’ll all just go about our business with nary a response. I don’t think so.
Did we do a good Job?
The final argument for releasing the tapes comes from the court itself. New Britain (CT) Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott stated, “Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials.” He expressed releasing the tapes will help the public gauge the appropriateness of law enforcement response. I have to ask, how will the public determine how well the 9-1-1 operators, the dispatchers and the officers did their job by listening to cries for help? In addition, what training and experience does the American public have to judge that response anyway? Again, if and when the tapes are used for training emergency professionals, there is a purpose. The American public saw the honor of law enforcement response that day through their actions.
Journalists across the country had varying responses to the release. Some chose to air the tapes both on television and on-line. Others chose to only release a transcript of what they heard. And, others they chose to keep those voices to themselves. Being a writer and an American, I understand and appreciate the need for government transparency. On the other hand, I also believe a lot of the requests under FOI have no purpose other than to augment the “If it bleeds it leads” mentality of American media. My heart goes out to all the families facing another holiday season without their precious child, as well as, those who lost a sister, mother, daughter or wife working in the school that day. I think what Nicole Hockley who lost her son Dylan in the shooting told CNN best sums up my feelings, “I have no desire whatsoever to hear the slaughter of 26 people, including my 6 year-old boy. And I can’t imagine why anyone else would want to hear that as well.”