15 Sep 2014
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911 Tapes: Welcome to the Dark Side

Do news organizations that publish 911 call audio help or harm the communities they serve?

911 Tapes: Welcome to the Dark Side

The initial shockwave that swept through Connecticut last week after the  in Wilton changed to disgust following the decision of area news outlets to publish the graphic 911 recording, during which Mrs. Ramsey told the dispatcher that her husband was lying dead “in a pool of blood.”

Patch received access to the tape but did not publish a link to it.

As a American writer who considers the First Amendment our most cherished right, I believe that making 911 tapes available to the public is essential to community safety; however, are we not also human beings? Did the tape need to be released so soon after Mr. Ramsey’s tragic demise?  And how—if at all—did the tape’s release advance the public’s understanding of this heinous crime? But if we stop releasing 911 tapes, do we then as a society stop printing upsetting photographs or other stories because their content may offend? 

As my left and right brains battled it out, I began wondering what state laws apply to 911 tape releases and what criteria are used when deciding when to release a tape. I found out—through the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press—that Connecticut does not have a statute covering 911 tape releases (unless the tape is recovered as evidence, in which case it is released at trial).

Compare the timing of the Wilton tape release to the timing of the Cheshire home invasion tape release, which didn’t occur until Steven Hayes went to trial three years after the crime (the state tried his accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, separately). The tapes from Sept. 11, 2001 weren’t released until 10 years later. The judge in the Jennifer Hudson family murders tape released the 911 calls only days ago.

I woke up with the firm intention of listening to each of these tapes, but quite frankly, I didn’t have the stomach to hear what must be the worst moments in these family members' and friends' lives. In fact, it was upsetting just reviewing the details of each of these crimes in writing; sound wasn’t necessary.

Why would one listen? I can only divine two reasons: insatiable morbid curiosity and professional obligation. I am profoundly grateful for those who listen for professional reasons, because they make our lives safer.

Here’s why.

Releasing 911 call details to the public shines a strong light on the inner workings of our dedicated emergency response personnel. Many in our community commented that the ’s response time of just under six minutes was unacceptable. Without the tape – or a transcript of it, which may be more appropriate – how would one know whether or not emergency procedures need improvement?

Don’t believe me? Check out a recently released report produced for our big city cousin to the south. In New York City, an outside consultant discovered by reviewing 911 tapes that dispatchers not only sometimes send emergency personnel to the wrong address, they often ask eight or more – eight or more! – questions before asking “what is the emergency?”

In the horrific Cheshire home invasion case, Cheshire Police Capt. Robert Vignola was forced to answer Hayes defense attorney questions regarding why police didn’t enter the home immediately after arriving at the Petit home—instead taking time to set up a perimeter—despite a bank teller’s 911 call more than a half an hour earlier reporting that Jennifer Hawke-Petit withdrew $15,000 to pay men who were holding her family hostage.

One cannot help but wonder if these instances changed first responder protocol; in the Cheshire case, I certainly hope it did. 

Both Hayes and Komisarjevsky were sentenced to death for the crimes.

If you can’t stand to listen to the tape or read the transcript, don’t do it. Or if you did—and you think it’s wrong—get involved and encourage your political officials to introduce legislation prohibiting 911 tape releases for a period of time following a newsworthy event out of sensitivity for a suffering family and . 

News organizations can certainly exercise sound judgment when requesting and publishing 911 tape information, too. Instead of a graphic audio file, perhaps publishing 911 call transcripts is the better choice.

Freedom of the press is sometimes ugly. But let us be grateful that we have it.

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