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Published January 16 2011

Forum editorial: No sound reason to close access to 911 recordings

A proposal to effectively shut down public and media access to recordings of 911 calls in North Dakota looks like a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, the genesis of the North Dakota legislation appears to be a national push by emergency services and law enforcement organizations to block access to the calls in every state. But what might be appropriate in one state might not be in another.

The North Dakota bill would close down access to 911 calls unless the caller provided written consent to release the call. In practical application, few if any callers would agree to release, thus the recordings, which now are public records, would never see the light of day.

The legislation is sponsored by four Republican legislators, one of whom is part owner of a Mandan ambulance service, which, like all ambulance services, is involved with 911 call systems. Rep. Todd Porter describes his bill as “a bill to protect victims.” He and his sponsors say it’s a matter of protecting personal privacy. But the underlying motivation is not privacy. It’s more likely a way to shield first responders, law enforcement and others in official capacities from public scrutiny of their work.

Furthermore, examples of misuse of emotional and often tragic 911 recordings are not from North Dakota. When pressed, sponsors of the bill and representatives of emergency services agencies that support the bill can’t cite convincing North Dakota examples in which media or members of the public have abused or misused 911 recordings to the detriment of ongoing cases or families involved in tragic situations.

It is true that such examples are easy to find in other parts of the country. But for the most part, North Dakota broadcasters and other media – and the public – have been respectful of privacy regarding sensitive, emotional or sensational 911 recordings. That’s not to say tapes are not reviewed by newspaper, radio and television news people. But as a 30-year veteran of radio, KFGO-AM News Director Paul Jurgens of Fargo said, “I don’t recall it ever being a problem. The media is very selective when we request them (911 tapes).”

Jack McDonald, attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said 911 tapes give incident details “far better” than a police report, and he’s not aware of any abuse among the state’s newspapers.

Tinkering with North Dakota’s excellent open records and open meetings laws should not be done because of a national initiative. The exceptions and exemptions to the laws are few and very narrowly defined. For the most part, North Dakotans trust government. But the state’s sunshine laws are the means of verification. Supporters of locking up 911 call recordings have not made a case that the open records law should be eroded. The bill should be defeated.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.