State Police move to shield sensitive data in 911 calls

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AUGUSTA — The Maine Department of Public Safety hopes lawmakers will change the state’s public information law that would allow them to shield 911 call information of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

A bill being proposed by the department also would strengthen provisions in state law that prohibit the release of personal medical information, department spokesman Stephen McCausland said Wednesday.

“We are proposing that certain personal information, usually given to us at very traumatic times, can be confidential,” McCausland said. 

Current state law allows the release of transcripts of 911 calls but prohibits the release of audio recordings of calls, although the digital recordings of the calls are commonly used by state prosecutors as evidence during trials.

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Maine law also allows shielding of personally identifying information, including a caller’s name and address, from being released to the public.

The issue of which data should be released has been the subject of at least two court cases in the past year.

A recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling affirmed that the transcripts of 911 calls were largely public documents under state law and could not be exempted from release by police, even when police are using the transcripts as part of an ongoing investigation.

Advocates for the public’s right to know and for transparency in police actions and activities said there are good reasons Maine law makes transcripts of 911 calls public records.

Sigmund Schutz, a Maine lawyer who handles right-to-know cases for the media, secured the recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling for the Portland Press Herald in a case involving 911 transcripts from a double-homicide case in Biddeford.

The Portland newspaper, part of a group of plaintiffs, also prevailed in a request to get a copy of transcripts of a 911 call in Windham that ended with police shooting to death a man who was brandishing a firearm in his driveway and threatening suicide.

Schutz said police already have fairly broad discretion in shielding data in 911 transcripts from release and that he would worry about how far they want to go in keeping secret details from 911 calls.

“If a citizen calls 911, that citizen is calling a recorded government phone number asking for government, taxpayer-funded assistance, and by law those phone calls are all recorded,” Schutz said. “I think there’s a real question as to what type of privacy interests realistically there are or should be.”

Law enforcement can already keep from the public’s view data that could compromise an ongoing police investigation, Schutz said.

He said transparency in how public service agencies, including police, fire and ambulance crews respond and how well communications systems work, is important for ensuring improvement and trust in the systems.

“Nationally, there’s been a lot of  investigative reporting that’s been made possible because of access to 911 information and that reporting has exposed in various cases serious problems with how these emergency-response systems operate,” Schutz said.

Most other states have greater public access to 911 information than Maine allows, including allowing the release of the actual recordings. Only seven states shield more data in 911 calls than Maine does.

The bill, once it is in draft form, would be subject to a series of public hearings and other actions in the Legislature beginning sometime in January.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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