A Florida House committee Wednesday OK’d 8-5 a proposal to severely restrict public access to 911 audio tapes.
The proposal would exempt 911 calls from public record, but make written transcripts available after a 60-day wait and a charge.
Among the proposal’s supporters was House Speaker Pro Tempore Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, who was temporarily assigned to the Governmental Affairs Policy Committee to corral Republican votes on behalf of his boss, Speaker Larry Cretul.
Also supporting the measure was state Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who said he voted for it hoping to protect victims and victims’ families from having to relive a horrific event in the press.
“The arguments were compelling, mostly the sensationalism, playing tapes over and over again,” said Reagan after the party-line vote in Tallahassee. “That was one of the compelling things for me.”
Those who want to hear what transpired during a 911 call could request to have it released, he added, noting, “There are ways to get to them if it serves a public good.”
Among those objecting to the measure were Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
“I’m really disappointed the House committee members did not look at the bigger picture,” she said. “Access to these tapes is a public safety issue.”
She noted that Florida has no standard statewide training for 911 dispatchers, as do many other states.
“We are sympathetic to the poor man who lost his son, but shouldn’t we also be sympathetic to the man who lost his wife because no one came at all?” Petersen asked.
She referred in the former instance to John Hoblick, president of the Florida Farm Bureau, whose 16-year-old son died after a night of drinking games and illegal prescription drugs. An audio tape of the 911 call about his son was played on Orlando-area TV news.
The latter case referred to Denise Amber Lee, of North Port, who was abducted and murdered. The 911 system came under scrutiny after her family complained that confusion at a Charlotte County 911 call center deprived law enforcement officers of a chance to save her life.
Holder said there had been changes in the bill before the vote to try to address the concerns of Lee’s family.
“There’s a lot of situations out there where victims and victims’ families just do not want to relive a horrific event like that in the press, and oftentimes, there are unscrupulous members of the press who will use sensationalized material for sales of their newspaper, TV show or news broadcast,” Holder said.
Bill Hutchison, Manatee’s director of public safety, said he would prefer to read the measure before commenting, but said he could understand both pro and con points of view.
“There have been 911 tapes (that were so graphic), I shudder, they’re so sensational,” said Hutchison. “It’s been very painful for me; but on the other hand, we’re a government, and right now, it’s the law.”
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031. The Associated Press and the St. Petersburg Times/ Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.