DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A bill moving swiftly through the Iowa Legislature would eliminate the public's right to access 911 calls involving emergencies in which people are injured, sealing off key information about authorities' first response to shootings and other incidents.
The bill would declare that audio, video and transcripts of 911 calls involving injured victims of crimes or accidents are confidential medical records and exempt from the Iowa open records law. In addition, any calls involving juveniles under the age of 18 would automatically be confidential.
The House passed the measure unanimously this month, and a Senate committee passed it Thursday with some Democratic opposition. A final vote could happen as early as next week.
Rep. Dean Fisher, a Montour Republican, said it was crafted in response to last year's release to The Associated Press of 911 calls that helped expose an unusual string of gun mishaps in Tama County. Two teenage girls were unintentionally shot and killed and a third teen and her mother were injured in a one-year span in the county of only 20,000 residents.
The calls revealed that one father had accidentally shot and killed his daughter — a fact that the police had never made public. The audio of another call showed that a fast emergency response by authorities helped save the life of an injured 14-year-old girl who was accidentally shot by her brother.
County officials said they were at a loss on how to improve gun safety after what they called an unprecedented string of tragedies, which didn't result in criminal charges against anyone. Instead, at least one county official pushed to limit information about such cases going forward statewide.
Emergency management coordinator Mindy Benson, who had released the calls in response to the AP's open records request, complained to Fisher that she felt the release invaded the privacy of the families and sought a change in the law, Fisher said on the House floor.
"These grieving families simply wanted their privacy," he said.
Two of the three families affected, however, had agreed to speak to AP in the hopes of raising awareness about gun safety.
Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the Tama County cases are "spot-on" to show why such information is in the public interest. He said he can understand why lawmakers are concerned about medical privacy but it appears they haven't considered the "unintended consequences" of closing off access to 911 recordings involving injuries.
"This bill would hamper the public's efforts to hold government officials or private citizens accountable for their actions," he said.
Fisher said Thursday that privacy should outweigh the public's right to know and that 911 calls should be treated with the same confidentiality as patients' medical records. He noted that doctors can't publicly discuss medical conditions, asking: "Just because it's a 911 call, why is that different?"
Fisher noted that public records custodians could choose which, if any, of the calls to release at their discretion under the open records law — a power they rarely use. The bill also would allow parents to obtain 911 calls involving their children.
Although members of both parties praised the bill's confidentiality provisions regarding minors, the measure also would block the public's ability to assess how law enforcement officials respond to emergencies involving children.
Fayette County recently released 911 calls related to the death of a 4-year-old boy who shot himself last summer in Elgin. The calls revealed that it took many minutes for an ambulance to arrive — a delay that Sheriff Marty Fisher acknowledged was caused by the closure of a key road that added five miles to its route.
Margaret Johnson, interim executive director of the Iowa Public Information Board, which is responsible for interpreting the open records law, said the board hasn't taken a position. She said her biggest concern is ensuring that any new exemption is "real clear" so it can be easily carried out.