Monday, March 8, 2010

Apparently Governor Crist agrees

Originally published March 4, 2010

House to hear 911 bill: Measure would exempt tapes from open records laws

By Paul Flemming

A House member wants to block release of 911 tapes and exempt them as open records to protect victims from further trauma by public release.

The bill by Rep. Robert Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican, drew the swift opposition of open-government advocates. Schenck's bill will be heard next week in the House council he chairs.

"I just feel like victims need protection," said Rep. Robert Schenck, a Republican from Spring Hill. Identifying personal information contained in the calls is already blocked from release.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he favors keeping the tapes as public records.

"I think it's always better when you shed light on any situation, whether it's a 911 call, whether it's public expenditures, no matter what it might be, transparency is always the right call," Crist said.

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, on Tuesday alerted her media-supported group about the bill. She labeled the proposal the Tiger Woods Relief Act, linking it to the release late last year of calls to 911 following Woods' November car crash outside of his Florida home.

"With all due respect, that is completely ridiculous," Schenck said.

The bill was scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, but discussion of other legislation delayed its consideration for a week.

"We're not going to discount their concerns" about victims, Petersen said. "Sometimes we have to look at the broader picture, too."

Recordings of 911 calls that are now open to the public would be closed by the bill if it became law. Instead, transcripts of the calls would be made available within 60 days.

Released 911 recordings have revealed negligence by emergency responders. Schenck said his proposal protects victim privacy while maintaining watchdog abilities.

"We're still keeping that intact with release of the transcript," Schenck said.

Petersen said transcripts wouldn't allow the same level of scrutiny. She cited a recent Tampa case in which a dispatcher was argumentative with a caller, did not follow procedure and the woman died.

"Access to these tapes is important. The transcript doesn't do us any good," Petersen said. "Intonation is as important as what's being said."

Schenck said he was contacted by individuals and victim advocates to ban the release of the tapes, though he said he couldn't name them off the top of his head.

In 2001, the Legislature banned the release of autopsy photos in the wake of race-car driver Dale Earnhardt's death in a wreck at the Daytona 500.