911 tapes can be painful, but must be public

The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission this week ruled in favor of an appeal by The Associated Press, ordering the release of the 911 tapes from the Newtown shooting. The prosecutor investigating the school massacre had refused to release the tapes saying victims and witnesses “shouldn’t have to worry that their calls for help in their most vulnerable moments will become fodder for the evening news.”

It is certainly easy to sympathize with callers who are thrust into such horrible circumstances. At one time, Tennessee was considering exempting 911 tapes from the state’s Public Records Act for that very reason. Such privacy concerns are legitimate, and any media outlet that does obtain such tapes must act with respect toward the citizens involved.

But barring the public from reviewing 911 tapes also can shield from scrutiny wrongdoing by officials. For instance, a couple of years ago the News Sentinel discovered that a Campbell County deputy had tried to keep a state trooper away from the scene of a crash caused by one of the Sheriff’s Department’s own detectives, who was drunk. The story wouldn’t have been possible, and the truth wouldn’t have been known, if the tape of the emergency call had been kept under wraps.