The appeal by Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky III of a ruling by the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) late last month to make public audio recordings of 911 calls made on 12/14 has delayed the release of the recordings to the Associated Press and other media. But it is only a matter of time before everyone will have access to the sounds coming across the phone lines from Sandy Hook School to the emergency dispatch center that morning. Unfortunately, Mr Sedensky’s argument that the release of this material would damage an investigation in which no arrests are anticipated is not likely to sway an appeals court any more than it did the commission.
In the course of the FOIC’s review of the issue, Mr Sedensky raised some considerations that may not carry much legal weight, but which, nonetheless, are freighted with moral import. The commission’s ruling, he noted, would further victimize the victims of the crimes of 12/14. “This is a case about crime victims and witnesses,” he said, “who shouldn’t have to worry that their calls for help in their most vulnerable moments will become fodder for the evening news.”
The commission’s ruling is likely to set some precedents in the practical implementation of a law enacted last June in response to 12/14 to restrict the release of certain records in homicide cases, including crime scene photos, film, and video that would constitute “an unwarranted invasion” of the privacy of the surviving family members of homicide victims. Audio recordings in which the condition of homicide victims is described were also blocked from release for one year — but not audio from 911 calls. The FOIC has decided that nothing in the 911 calls would invade anyone’s privacy. We shall see.
We acknowledge the right of the Associated Press and other news organizations to review the content of the calls as a means of examining the response by law enforcement to our most dire calls for help. But transcripts and timelines should suffice. What purpose does it serve to record and disseminate the anguished cries of those reporting violent murders they have just witnessed, or even sounds of continuing gunfire? It serves morbid interests, not public interests.
We have no doubt that the Associated Press will exercise the utmost editorial discretion in deciding what of the audio recordings to release to the public. The only problem is that the FOIC’s decision confers complete access to these recordings to anyone who requests them for any purpose. Given what we have seen so far on the Internet about the Sandy Hook tragedy, it does not take much imagination to see uses for this material that would constitute an egregious violation of the privacy and dignity of those inside the Sandy Hook School on that fateful morning. The legislature needs to add audio recordings of 911 calls to its list of restricted media associated with homicides.