Senator’s 9-1-1 effort will jeopardize our right to hear

By Todd Franko

A New Jersey man was beaten by police officers who dragged him from his van after a short chase.

He had refused to stop his van for police, who were undercover and in an unmarked van, because he thought they were just unruly teens chasing him. He was on the phone with a 911 operator to explain he was being chased when he was dragged out by the cops.

In South Carolina, two white officers shot and killed a black man who was hiding behind a store counter, evading an angry mob of white men who had taunted and beat him.

Police said he flashed a gun. But the store owner had a different version, which was related on his 911 call.

Those are just some of the haunting scenarios that you would never hear as a taxpayer if Ohio Sen. Tom Patton has his way.

Patton wants to ban the broadcast of 911 phone calls.

He’s the son of, and also the father of, police officers. He’s passionate about this effort and has wrapped it into Senate Bill 105 that will get a look in September.

His passion is well-intentioned, I am sure. But his way of going about this is all wrong.

His motivation stems from the incidents that make all of us cringe — the gut-wrenching, personal 911 victim calls played out on TV, radio and the Internet that do nothing but titillate an audience and torment an already tortured person or family.

Here’s Patton last spring: “I do not see how broadcasting the actual voice of a traumatic experience such as murder, robbery, severe injury or even death can benefit society.”

He’s right.

There’s little benefit to that one, narrow interpretation. And Patton will be able to rally many in the Statehouse with examples of such heartless and gratuitous usage.

But as many examples as there are of that usage, there are just as many examples of 911 calls that show the incompetent, uncaring and unbelievable actions of emergency personnel supported by our tax dollars.

I’ve included several examples that you can listen to on my blog on

Across the U.S., emergency officials have been fired, suspended and reassigned; and policies and procedures have been adjusted countless times due to public pressure applied when citizens are equipped with this information.

One olive branch in Patton’s bill is that the media would still be able to listen to 911 audio and be able to publish transcripts of the calls.

But here’s a comparison to demonstrate the flaw: The Grand Canyon is majestic. Now, do mere words convey the true majesty or would you better know the canyon after you’ve experienced it in person?

The 911 audio experience is the same.

Patton’s bill will face a stiff battle from Cleveland attorney Dave Marburger.

(Full disclosure: Dave is a media attorney. When governments block media on public records, we call Dave. But more specifically, Dave is an attorney for the people because when he’s fighting for records access, he’s fighting for citizens’ access.)

The battle over SB 105 will be personal for Dave on two levels.

First, he’s the attorney who first took a case to the Ohio Supreme Court that made 911 audiotapes available to the public. He won.

And, on a more personal level, Dave had to use 911 several years ago. The incident ended fine, but Dave recalls the heart-pounding moments when he was on the phone.

Hence, it’s not hard to get Dave heated about the issue.

“There is a problem to address,” Marburger acknowledged. “I don’t want to diminish how uncomfortable it would be to hear my voice on TV.

“But suppose the dispatcher blew me off. I’d want the media to play that. I’d want the community to know what a cruddy 911 operator there was. Under Patton’s bill, I would not be able to. His law would disable my ability to prove I was wronged.”

Marburger has encountered too many government and police officials who are either incompetent or poorly trained at their jobs.

“The whole 911 system relies on sympathetic and fast-acting dispatchers,” Marburger said. “But a great deal of 911 tapes reveal that dispatchers are lousy at their jobs. On a transcript, you cannot capture tone, attitude or length of silence.

“To solve one problem, Patton’s creating a new and greater problem.”

That the media can hear the tapes (just not broadcast them) does little for Marburger.

“The value is that the public can hear it — the citizens who have some control over the dispatchers. My neighbors can hear how I was treated. My family can hear. That’s what the public needs.”

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