Confidentiality rules protect abuse victims
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A major reason why the recording of the 911 call Ka'Sandra Wade made to authorities, likely in the midst of a domestic abuse situation before she was murdered by her boyfriend, has not been publicly aired is due to lobbying by advocates for victims of domestic abuse.
The irony that the public cannot monitor how public safety personnel responded to the Larimer woman's call for help Dec. 31 due to an exemption in the state's Right-to-Know Law is not lost on the advocates, but they argue keeping the records private is still the best protection for victims overall.
"Confidentiality is the cornerstone of victim safety," said Laurie Baughman, senior attorney for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "The release of the records may have impact on other victims who wouldn't reach out to police if they knew that information was going to be released, and they may not be leaving that abusive person."
Pennsylvania has some of the strictest confidentiality rules on 911 records and transcripts in the nation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures it joins Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island and Wyoming in keeping them fully confidential, outside of release by government agencies or courts. Five other states -- Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina and South Dakota -- place some restrictions on the release of the calls.
Other states release 911 calls and transcripts to the public. When Pennsylvania's public records law was rewritten in 2007 and 2008, First Amendment advocates pushed to remove the 911 exemption to allow looks into emergency responses exactly like Ms. Wade's call.
Pittsburgh police went to her Larimer home after she called 911 and left after speaking to a man through a window. The next day she was found fatally shot there. Officials from the city and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office are reviewing the matter.
The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association was among those pushing six years ago for the calls to be made public. The PNA "believes that the public must have access to 911 information in order to hold 911 services accountable and improve service, and we supported language in the law guaranteeing access. Sadly, there are numerous examples of 911 response lapses that resulted in injury or death," its attorney Melissa Melewsky said.
In the final version of the bill, 911 records were still kept confidential but it allowed for agencies or courts to release them if, the law says, "the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in nondisclosure."
A new version of the right-to-know legislation will be introduced this year by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, although it is not known what parts of the law will be reopened, his spokesman Erik Arneson said.
If 911 changes are proposed, victim advocates said they will again lobby against them. Besides the chilling effect making the calls public could have on domestic abuse victims, they argue, there is another complicating factor. The state's "address confidentiality program," approved in 2005, allows victims to erase their addresses from public documents such as driver's licences and replace them with a post office box, and unveiling names and addresses on 911 calls could give abusers or stalkers a workaround.
"This is a small percentage of the population but we're talking about our most vulnerable people," said Carol Lavery, the state's victim advocate since 2006 and the former director of the Office of Victims' Services for the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. "Folks like us in this line of work -- police and others -- know what has to happen to keep victims safe, and we'll do anything to keep that information from police reports and emergency calls."
Some other states remove names, addresses and other identifying information from 911 calls and transcripts, but advocates argue that would not keep abusers from keeping tabs on victims, especially in small Pennsylvania communities.
In interviews last week the advocates could not marshal evidence showing domestic abuse was at higher levels in states with more transparent 911 record laws. But they would rather not risk there being a connection.
"We have strong confidentiality laws, and they've been a very helpful thing I think," said Ms. Baughman, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence attorney. "To take something and weaken it puts the whole house of cards at risk."
First Published January 12, 2013 12:00 am