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Bill to limit public access to 911 tapes is irrational

March 13, 2001

Bill to limit public access to 911 tapes is irrational



Prompted by a desire to limit radio and TV broadcasters' use of audio tracks from 911 calls, the West Virginia Senate is pushing a bill to keep such calls confidential unless a judge orders their release.

It's a ridiculous attempt to fix a system that isn't broken and should be opposed by all who care about the free flow of information.

The bill originated in the Senate Juiciary Committee last Thursday and is being fast-tracked so that it could come to the floor as soon as this week. It was introduced at the request of 911 directors, who say their interest is in keeping information confidential, like medical conditions and the identity of those who report crimes.

Jimmy Gianto, of the McDowell County Service Center, said that without the bill, someone who inquired might find out that a patient had AIDS. Jack Bowden, of the the Raleigh County 911 center, said the bill just makes the court the gate-keeper of the information.

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Why is this such a bad idea? The 911 system is publicly funded and provides a record of the performance of fire/rescue departments also funded by citizens' dollars. News agencies all over the nation have used 911 calls to track response time of local agencies.

Last year Gary Messenger, a former state trooper, was convicted of assaulting a Welch resident who complained about the noise from a retirement party. The key evidence was provided by 911 transcripts. Making 911 calls confidential would give judges who work with police every day the discretion to either release such a tape or suppress it.

Requests for the release of such records aren't made every day. Even Gianto, McDowell County's 911 director, says the change is not being sought because something bad happened in the past, but to prevent future problems.

But according to its sponsor, state Sen. Bill Wooton, D-Raleigh, the real spark for this bill is the fear that TV and radio will broadcast 911 tapes of victims screaming (or worse) during attacks. Unpleasant things happen, we're sad to say, but the possibility that they'll be recorded by a 911 system is no excuse to restrict access to public information.

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