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Why Newtown 911 Calls Should Be Public

A judge is weighing whether to make public the 911 calls from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Painful as they undoubtedly are, he should.

The state official in charge of the (long delayed) investigation is fighting to keep them private, but not all the victims' families want that. "The more information I have, the easier it is to wrap my brain around what happened," said Cristina Hassinger, daughter of slain Principal Dawn Hochsprung.

And the more known about how emergency workers did their jobs that terrible day, the better schools and towns everywhere can protect their children.

It took the release of the 911 tapes from Sept. 11, 2001, for example, for the public to hear that dispatchers were telling callers to stay put inside the World Trade Center — despite orders to evacuate from field commanders.

What significant lessons about Newtown's 911 system might its tapes hold?

Calls Are Routinely Released

New Britain Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott is weighing investigators' appeal to seal the Dec. 14 tapes against The Associated Press' request to abide by state law, a state Freedom of Information Commission ruling and traditional practice, and release them.

An emotional case can be made to spare the families of victims more pain by keeping the tapes secret. But that could set a troubling precedent, one that leaves government in charge of deciding when it suits its purposes to release such information and when it doesn't.

The wiser course for Judge Prescott would be to uphold time-tested values of transparency and open government.

Releasing the Sandy Hook 911 tapes, it's argued, would jeopardize the investigation into the shooting. But nearly everything is known about that day — except what investigators are keeping to themselves. Also, as we've pointed out in this space before, 911 tapes are often released during investigations, as they were just after the Hartford Distributors shooting in 2010. And the law in Connecticut is clear that an investigation, by itself, isn't reason enough to hide 911 records.

Secrecy in government is bad public policy. Exceptions to good policy shouldn't be carved out piecemeal, depending on who is asking. That way malfeasance lies. In 2010, for example, Florida's House speaker tried to make 911 calls confidential in his state — until a newspaper revealed that he was doing it for a politically connected friend whose son had died from an overdose.

People need to see and hear how their government is working — especially public safety agencies, which have enormous power. People also have a right to know about horrific crimes committed on public property.

And precisely because emergency calls involve life-and-death matters, those calls need to be open for public inspection.

In 1999, The Courant looked at 911 calls and other records and found significant ambulance delays around the state. Reporters found that "the state health department makes no effort to track response times" and that "some complaints have languished for years without being resolved." A state investigation ensued, and the president of a major ambulance company resigned.

These discoveries could not have been made if those records were private.

Heroes On The Phone

Airing 911 calls reveals not just mistakes. The calls also show professional heroes, such as the Georgia school clerk who talked a shooter into surrendering and the dispatchers who, with nerves of steel, tried to get Hartford Distributors killer Omar Thornton to reveal his location.

In the case of the awful crime in Newtown, police and prosecutors are dragging their feet on producing an investigatory report and defying the law by withholding the 911 tapes. This doesn't boost public confidence.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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