March 1st, 2010
Public 911 tapes help, not hurt, victims
By David Cuillier
I’m flabbergasted at states like Alabama, Ohio and Wisconsin considering shutting down 911 tapes, saying they want to protect victims. I talked a little about it today on CNN with a victims rights advocate (clip).
I acknowledged that we have to mitigate harm to sources and victims – it’s an important ethical consideration. But then I failed to follow up with the most important point:
To minimize harm to victims we MUST keep 911 tapes public.
It seems counter-intuitive, but here’s the reason: 911 dispatchers will treat victims better if they know their actions might be broadcast on the local news. Transparency makes for better government. Dispatchers who can say whatever they want in secret are more likely to cut some corners and be rude. It’s human nature. When we are watched we work harder and better.
So if we really want to help victims, make sure 911 tapes are public. In the meantime, journalists need to continue to weigh the public good vs. the harm to victims when broadcasting 911 calls. Some journalists really goof, but I think most make good decisions every day.