We live in a voyeuristic society. One that is becoming more invasive by the day. And a disturbing trend has begun that feeds into that voyeurism: the releasing of 911 tapes after a violent crime. From OJ Simpson to 9-11… Jon Benet Ramsey, Casey Anthony, Mel Gibson, Whitney Houston, Trayvon Martin… suddenly we the public feel entitled to hear the terror, the desperation, the immediacy of the call.
What can be gained by hearing these calls? We know the call was made, we know police responded, we know the outcome because it’s plastered all over the news. But do we really need to hear someone desperately screaming that someone else is being murdered right in front of them?
This has been on my mind for a while, probably since the OJ tapes were released – that’s the first one that I can remember. But it was brought back up just this morning, when I found out that the tape of a local murder/suicide was released. This crime happened in a town very close to me, the call was routed through my own county’s dispatch center. The call has been all over the news for the last few days. Local people – three families – are intimately involved, and many, many people from my town and surrounding communities know these families intimately. This crime rocked our safe little world.
But it happened more than a month ago. News outlets tout the call as “revealing new details” about the crime. Unless you consider anguished screams and a possibly rude dispatcher “new details”, nothing new was discovered. The victim is still dead. Her shooter is still dead. And we could have been told that the gun was purchased illegally without forcing the families to relive the horror.
And on the other side of it, is this new practice of ‘outing’ everything in an emergency situation going to start to have a backlash? Are people going to start thinking twice before placing a call for help? Are they going to start withholding information from dispatchers for fear that it might be misconstrued when the public listens? Case in point: our local situation. I have not heard the tape, I won’t listen out of principle. But others who have are saying that the dispatcher was “cold,” “rude,” and “unprofessional”. That there were pauses in the tape. But it’s possible that she was talking with emergency personnel during those pauses. It is possible that she is trained to remain absolutely unemotional, which is vital when you’re dealing with a severely traumatized and out-of-control individual. But there are now people calling for her dismissal because they are third-party listeners, a month after the fact, playing Armchair Quarterback.
I don’t often say “there oughtta be a law” and mean it, but this time? There oughtta be a law that says that the press cannot release 911 tapes. It’s one thing to play them in court, especially if they hold vital evidence. But there is no reason, beyond prurience, to release this stuff to the general public.