We wrote in October about how at least 38 states allow the public to view transcripts or hear recordings of 911 calls to police. I thought about this again this morning, after a friend sent me a Chicago Reader story on a murder that took place there in the projects. It's titled "They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror" and you can read it here.
It begins, like a lot of great crime writing, by using 911 call transcripts — or actual tapes — to describe the victim's frantic call to police before she died.
But this type of reporting doesn't just add juicy details to the story. It adds nuance to our understanding of what both victims and law enforcement face in the split-second moments of a crime happening.
In this case, the victim, a sometime-psychiatric patient, wasn't very clear in her 911 call, and the dispatcher didn't know exactly how to classify it. Was it a disturbance with neighbors? Was somebody breaking into her apartment? Whatever decision a dispatcher makes will determine how quickly police will answer the call.
And that's a great reason to have 911 calls and transcripts as public record. It allows people — and the media — to evaluate whether police and dispatchers are making the right judgment calls.
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And provided law enforcement is doing its job, it's good for police, too. It helps illustrate the gray area that officers must navigate on a daily basis. By reporting on 911 transcripts, news organizations can help show readers the difficult second-by-second judgment calls law enforcement must make in difficult situations.
South Dakota is a long way off, of course. We're just now looking to make sure people in rural communities can get basic access to police logs.
Before going to jot these thoughts down here, I went back and looked for the date on that Chicago Reader story. I assumed it must have been written last week, or last month.
Nope. The author penned it in September of 1987. Which illustrates once again how South Dakota is decades behind other places in government transparency.