WASHINGTON (AP) - The District of Columbia receives nearly 1.3 million 911 calls a year, and city officials insist that audio from those calls is public information. Yet the public rarely gets a chance to hear them.
Requests for audio of calls under the District’s Freedom of Information Act are routinely denied, according to officials at the District’s Office of Unified Communications and reporters who cover public safety in the city. They usually say they won’t release it because it’s part of an ongoing investigation or it contains personal information. Yet in Maryland, calls are routinely released within days, with names of callers or patients cut out.
In the District, the exemptions are applied broadly. The last time the city released audio of a 911 call was more than a year ago, in a highly publicized case from January 2014 where a man died of a heart attack he suffered across the street from a fire station. Firefighters were disciplined for failing to walk across the street and help after bystanders got their attention, and four employees of the 911 call center were also disciplined. A dispatcher sent an ambulance to the city’s northwest quadrant, rather than to northeast, where it happened.
District officials have denied FOIA requests for 911 calls in other high-profile cases, including a 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard that killed 12 people.
A spokeswoman for the communications office, Wanda Gattison, said in a statement that it “has typically withheld those calls” that trigger an exemption to the FOIA law.
More recently, the city has released written transcripts of 911 calls about a fatal subway accident in January, and officials say they plan to release the audio from those calls as well, once it has been redacted to protect personal information.
Kevin Goldberg, a media attorney and the president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, said governments routinely use privacy as an excuse not to release information.
“It’s one of the most abused exemptions at the federal level. It’s not surprising that they’re using it here,” Goldberg said. “It’s very easy to claim personal privacy is being violated and put the onus back on the requester to try to explain why it isn’t.”
In neighboring Maryland, public safety agencies often release audio from 911 calls within days of the calls being made. For example, Montgomery County released 911 calls the day after a plane crashed into a house in Gaithersburg in December, killing six people. The callers’ names were redacted from the audio file distributed to reporters.
Pete Piringer, a spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service who released the calls, said it isn’t time-consuming to redact names from audio files. Though there’s no official policy for when calls should be made public, he tries to release them quickly if it serves the public good.
“It’s a judgment call,” Piringer said. “If there’s some education or community interest, I can proactively release them.”
Calls were also released quickly in a recent case where the audio reflected poorly on the government’s performance: A 911 dispatcher in Anne Arundel County told a teenage girl to “stop whining” as her father lay dying following a hit-and-run on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The county fire department released the call less than a week after it happened, and the dispatcher no longer works for the department.
Mark Segraves, a longtime investigative reporter who works for WRC-TV in Washington, said it’s gotten increasingly difficult to obtain audio of District 911 calls. He said in recent years, city officials have demanded that he get permission from the person who called.
“Normally, you have no idea who’s calling,” he said. “Several times, I’ve been denied because I did not have the permission of the caller.”
Once, Segraves said, he called 911 after he saw a woman collapse on the street. Later, he asked for audio of the call - and was denied.
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