As a society, we have become more and more willing to collectively sacrifice privacy in the name of safety. From the PATRIOT Act on a national level to the installation of video cameras on State Street just a few years ago, we have been forced to strike a balance between using technology to evaluate and ensure safety and maintaining personal privacy.
The Brittany Zimmermann homicide nearly two years ago further strained this relationship. In the aftermath of her murder and the subsequent investigation into the responsiveness of the Dane County 911 Center, media outlets attempted to gain access to recordings of the calls made in connection with the incident.
In the end, an edited tape of a conversation between Zimmermann’s fianc?, Jordan Gonnering, and a 911 dispatcher was released after a protracted court battle, but Zimmermann’s tape was withheld, citing concerns about compromising the ongoing investigation. Currently, 911 recordings may only be made public at the discretion of a judge, and even then sections remain subject to censorship or redaction.
At the urging of the Zimmermann and Gonnering families, the state Legislature is currently considering a bill that would prohibit the release of all audio recordings of 911 conversations. Written transcripts would still be available, subject to the approval of a judge.
Although we have the deepest sympathies for the Zimmermann and Gonnering families, we cannot support this bill for several reasons.
First, as in this case, audio files can be critical to the public interest. The public back-and-forth between Madison Police, the 911 Center and Dane County Commissioners that followed the murder was as confusing as it was contradictory. At different points, Dane County released a statement declaring there was “no evidence the dispatcher who took a call from Zimmermann’s cell phone heard anything that indicated an emergency was occurring.” Later, the police department said a scream and sounds of a struggle were audible on the call. Imagine how different the written transcripts would have looked depending on which organization was in charge.
Although Zimmermann’s call was withheld from the public for fear of compromising the ongoing investigation, the situation is a perfect illustration of how the actual audio recording — rather than a written transcript — would be important to the public. Under different circumstances the tapes would have been critical to resolving questions about the 911 Center, especially given the contentious and politicized atmosphere that surrounded the process.
Moreover, it is not as if these files are available at the whim of the media. In all cases, a judge weighs whether the possible public benefit could outweigh the individual’s concern for privacy. Gonnering’s tape was only released after a nine-month legal battle, and it was then still subject to heavy editing by the court.
Finally, media outlets themselves exercise restraint when determining whether to publicize the tapes. NBC-15, for example, did not air the call on television (though it posted the tape on its website).
We acknowledge the issues of personal trauma at play and will not pretend to know the depths of the grief experience by the Zimmermann and Gonnering families. However, there are certain cases where information from an emergency call could be important, and the state should not unconditionally restrict such access. Already there are several safeguards to ensure these tapes are not released without due consideration, and these checks have yet to be proven ineffective.
Just as it would have been foolish to reform the 911 Center had it not been proven dysfunctional, so too would the state be remiss to bar the people from accessing any 911 call, no matter its importance to the public interest.