Monday, March 15, 2010

St Petersburg Times

A Times Editorial
Keep recordings of 911 calls public
In Print: Monday, March 15, 2010

Florida's accidental House speaker, Larry Cretul, has not left much of an imprint since taking over last year in the wake of the Ray Sansom scandal. Now the Ocala Republican is manipulating the legislative process on behalf of a powerful constituent — at the expense of sound public policy. Cretul is fast-tracking a bill that would exempt recordings of 911 calls from public records laws, which would make it more difficult to hold law enforcement agencies accountable for the way they respond to emergencies. It is an effort driven more by emotion than clear-headed reason, and lawmakers who embrace open government should reject this effort to keep these recordings secret.

Proposed House Government Affairs Policy Committee Bill 10-03a would allow only public safety officials — and no one else — access to 911 recordings, including recordings made before the bill became law. The measure might as well be called the Relieve Police Officers, Firefighters and 911 Operators From Accountability Act. Exposing the failures of ill-trained, bungling or malicious police, fire and emergency personnel would become infinitely harder.

The bill would silence the voices of victims like Denise Amber Lee, whose horrific abduction in Sarasota County at the hands of a murderer was captured in a series of 911 calls that revealed a dispatcher's mistakes that likely cost Lee her life. Lee's husband, Nathan, courageously opposes the bill and notes that "911 issues need more transparency and not less if we are ever to learn from past mistakes."

Cretul's sudden interest in secrecy stems from the drug overdose death last year of the 16-year-old son of the president of the Florida Farm Bureau, a powerful advocacy group of growers and ranchers headquartered in Cretul's district. The father, John Hoblick, told Cretul his family was traumatized when local television stations played the 911 recording of his older son's call after he found his younger brother unresponsive. No one enjoys hearing tapes of their relatives' anguished calls for help in a crisis. But as Nathan Lee notes, there is a greater public issue at stake.

For example, after recordings from Lee's murder became public, the Legislature passed the Denise Amber Lee act two years ago, establishing voluntary statewide certification for emergency dispatchers. If lawmakers embrace this latest bill, citizens would only be allowed written transcripts of 911 calls. Those transcripts would be available 60 days later, with the individual seeking the record paying for the transcription.

A belated, written transcription is not enough. Transcripts can be ambiguous, and they lack tone and context. As Lee's father, Mark Lee, said about recordings: "It's like a song. . . . Hearing a song is a lot more powerful than reading the lyrics." He also opposes Cretul's bill.

Cretul stacked the House committee last week to make sure the bill passed, 8-5. But two-thirds of both the House and Senate are required to approve a public record exemption, and the speaker is still trying to recruit an influential Senate sponsor. It is never easy for many lawmakers to stand up to a House speaker who has control over the fate of their own bills and budget issues — particularly when initial public sentiment may be on his side. But emotional responses to specific incidents often make bad law. Making recordings of 911 tapes secret would cloud Florida's legacy of government-in-the-sunshine and make it more difficult to hold emergency personnel accountable for their actions in the minutes when residents need them most.

[Last modified: Mar 15, 2010 08:33 AM]