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Oversight of 911 calls must override sympathy for victims' families

Those who of us who don't work in Tallahassee have a hard time knowing whether or not Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, is a major player.

What we do know is that reporters covering the Legislature don't write about him much, and that one of the of the few splashes he made last year was for cutting off debate on an election bill (a doomed one) favored by Republicans and loathed by Democrats.

This year he's in the news for the same general reason — limiting public access to government — by pushing for a ban on the immediate release of 911 calls.

This bill came out of the House Government Affairs Policy Committee, so Schenck, as chairman, is technically the sponsor. But as John Frank of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau has reported, this is mainly the work of House Speaker Larry Cretul, who is doing a favor for Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick.

Hoblick's son died of a drug and alcohol overdose last year, and Hoblick had to endure the replay of the 911 call on Orlando television stations.

The tape was edited to exclude graphic details. Still, those of us who haven't been through such an ordeal can only imagine the pain of having to relive it. Schenck argues that the ban would protect victims and their family members from this trauma.

I can see that, especially because it is now so easy to slap a 911 recording on a Web site. The bill would allow the release of a transcript 60 days after the call, printed at the expense of whoever requests it, or by court order.

But the Sunshine Amendment, remember, is just that, an amendment to the Florida Constitution. In our state it almost has the status of free speech as a basic right promoting democracy and responsible government.

Access to emergency calls allows the public to check the performance of dispatchers, which is vital because they don't face any state training requirements, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

A 911 call tells us exactly the information relayed to fire and law enforcement agencies, which helps us judge whether their responses are adequate or, in some cases, ethical.

Several years ago, a deputy wrecked an unmarked Hernando County Sheriff's Office vehicle. We wanted to know if his father, the chief deputy, had intervened to prevent him from being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.

It was the dispatch tape that revealed dad had driven to the scene.

My own very limited experience with 911 calls also makes me think scrutiny is good.

Three years ago, I tried to interview the St. Petersburg City Council chairman after he had resigned in scandal. I found him in the garage of his second home in Citrus County, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.

I knew the 911 conversation might be replayed, just as, I imagine, dispatchers often are. Though I wish I could claim more humanitarian urges, my first thought was to not do anything stupid. I made sure my first call was to the Sheriff's Office, not the paper.

Considering the money we spend on emergency services — about $32 million for the Sheriff's Office alone — we have a right to know what 911 calls can tell us about them.

If I were Schenck, I wouldn't want to be known for standing in the way of that right.

Oversight of 911 calls must override sympathy for victims' families 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 1:35pm]
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