Release of 911 calls
January 21, 2010 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Are 911 calls public domain? I mean you hear clips from 911 calls (in the USA) on the news. Are they made available to the media through some kind of freedom of information regulation? Or do both parties (the dispatcher and the caller) have to agree to it? Why are they released? and does the calling party have any kind of privacy rights (they can be pretty awful calls and stressful/horrific etc).

And if you said as part of the call "I hereby refuse to grant permission for my voice on this call to be released to the media" - or something like that - would that count (to prevent release)?

posted by Xhris to Law & Government (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
They are subject to FOIA, it doesn't need to be agreed to. They are released because they are required to be released if the media asks for them. A 911 call about me (in that I was the one in danger) was released to the media and it WAS stressful/horrific to hear it on the news later.

Since it's subject to FOIA, I highly doubt you can refuse to grant permission, generally you can't circumvent FOIA like that. Though I don't actually know.
posted by brainmouse at 11:11 AM on January 21, 2010

A bit of Googling finds some stories which seem to indicate these are governed by state public records laws rather than the Federal FOIA (makes sense since a federal agency generally isn't involved), so the answer may vary from state to state.
  • About an Ohio bill (apparently stalled) which would prohibit broadcast of audio from 911 calls, but still allow them to be released, and a note about a journalists' group which opposes the bill.
  • Editorial from a Monroe, WI paper opposing a bill which would prohibit release of audio from 911 calls but still allow release of transcripts. Includes a particular example which they argue illustrates why audio should be released.
  • Article on a 2002 Arizona court ruling upholding a police department's refusal to release audio from one particular call, even though the audio is considered a public record in general and such requests would normally be honored.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:27 AM on January 21, 2010

It seems to me that the caller has no expectation of privacy here, but that the police department might not want to release the call for other reasons.

Look, you call 911, you're deliberately reporting to the authorities. You are creating a pbulci record. There's nothing private about that. You have no reason to think that anything you say cannot or will not be used against you in a court of law. Saying you expect it to be private does not, in fact, make it private any more than saying you are not a citizen of the United States means you don't have to pay your taxes.

Many calls which are released or rebroadcast are generally released in such a way which would obscure the identity of the caller. They're pretty reasonable about it. If you were the one who called you'd be able to tell, but a random stranger would just hear a caller. The audio quality is generally pretty bad, too.

Still, police departments can have good and compelling reasons for not releasing said audio. For example, I can seem them resisting releasing audio related to criminal investigations or prosecutions still in progress. Or for calls which somehow embarass the department. You can probably get it through a public records request--as DevilsAdvocate notes, this would be a state request, not FOIA, which is federal--but if they've got a good reason not to give it to you, they'll probably be able to get away with it.

But either way, the caller has little or not say in the matter, and I can't think of a good reason why they should.
posted by valkyryn at 11:42 AM on January 21, 2010

As I learned after my wife's car accident last year, around here 911 calls are erased 7 days after the incident, unless there was a death involved. So although they are public, as a practical matter they don't seem to be particularly accessible unless somebody acts quickly.
posted by COD at 12:24 PM on January 21, 2010

Not all parts of 911 calls are released: Addresses and some identifying details are generally redacted.

And specifics of medical treatment are also redacted, or else the call is not released at all. Here's a statement by the Florida attorney general about whether calls that include details about patient treatment can be released. This statement (also from Florida) talks about removing parts of calls that reveal information about an active criminal investigation. (Search for 911.)

Generally, the reason freedom of information advocates press for the calls to be released is that 911 calls allow the public to ensure that the government response to crisis is adequate.

Some journalists play every call they get their hands on (and by "journalists," I mean the crappy TV news), which doesn't help their moral high-ground argument.

But imagine a fictional nightmare scenario where calls could be withheld based on the wishes of the caller: A person calls for help, but the call is so distracted and garbled that the emergency would be impossible for a reasonable person to discern. The emergency response is slowed, and something catastrophic happens. Then, the person who made the call starts going on in the media about the bad police response. This person is very sympathetic, and in obvious pain. The police can't release the tape, because the caller doesn't give consent. Local politicians start to raise a stink about what a bad job the police department is doing, and the tide of public opinion turns against the department. Chaos ensues. In that hypothetical, the public good is served by releasing the tape.

While I don't think it should be illegal, I still think that playing 911 tapes for shock value is a terrible, terrible thing for local TV news to do.
posted by purpleclover at 12:27 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for answers.

I am right in summarizing that it's because the 911 call center (the police or dispatcher) is a state or city entity that the record is released? Not necessarily the responding agency? For medical emergencies the ambulance company that responds is often a private or charitable organization (witness the bill you'll get from many EMS organizations).

So if the rich and famous (for example) wanted some privacy with their emergency calls, somebody could set up an alternative dispatch center they could dial ?
posted by Xhris at 1:37 PM on January 21, 2010

Well, you're probably not asking about your own 911 call here (it doesn't sound like it anyways), but if you know ahead of time they've released it (which may also be doubtful), you could call the news station(s) and ask kindly if they would not play it because it would be traumatic for you or your family. Not guaranteeing they would honor the request, but I have had success with asking newspapers not to publish certain bits of information before. Though they are smaller, more local papers.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:13 PM on January 21, 2010

Best answer: Your summary is basically correct. 911 dispatch centers are generally creatures of county governments (or city governments if the city is big enough). As such, because you are making a report which can have legal effect to a public entity, one which you assume will be forwarded to at least one if not three other public and/or private entities, there really isn't any argument that this public record comes with any expectation of privacy.

If you're rich enough, there are ways around parts of this. There are in fact exclusive medical service providers. This isn't really a dispatch center as much as it is a company which provides house calls, sometimes on an emergency basis, for all but the most serious private emergencies. Keeps embarassing things like overdoses and "plumbing" problems out of the press. If you don't know who these providers are, you can't afford them. They don't generally advertise to the public.

The same is not true for police and fire service. You have one of those emergencies, it really doesn't matter who you are, there's only one number to call. Sure, there are places with private security forces--and a lot of the time they can handle a lot of problems--but if you want to report a crime or have someone arrested, you have to call the police. Only officers of the state may act under color of law, so this isn't something you can get around very easily.

Fire response is a big enough deal that there is generally only one provider in a given area, so 911 is your only option. It's just too expensive to have private fire response most of the time.
posted by valkyryn at 5:50 AM on January 22, 2010

Just a followup: apparently states are considering banning the public release of these calls. A few states apparently already do, and more are thinking about it, but they're still largely public records available upon request.
posted by valkyryn at 11:48 AM on February 24, 2010

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