Next week the Decatur City Council will take up renewal of its 911 service contract with the Morgan County Emergency Management Communication District.
Normally, apart from haggling over fees, this is routine business before the new contract takes effect Oct. 1. However, one provision of the existing contract that remains in its proposed replacement is not routine, and it provides less transparency for law enforcement actions at a time when the need for transparency has never been more apparent.
Alabama law does not regard the audio of 911 calls as public records, but it does regard transcripts of those calls as such. And it provides that those records should be made available to the public.
The law holds that “any written or electronic record detailing the circumstances, response, or other events related to a 911 call which is kept by the emergency communications district in its regular course of business shall be deemed a public writing under Section 36-12-40, and subject to public inspection as otherwise provided by law.” And that additionally, “upon payment of a reasonable fee, not to exceed the actual cost of transcription, an emergency communications district shall provide a transcript of any requested audio recording of a 911 telephone call which is retained by the emergency communications district.”
The contract Decatur is proposing with the Morgan County Emergency Management Communication District (MCEMCD), however, inserts the Decatur Police Department into the process — an insertion not authorized by state law.
According to the proposed contract, “In the event MCEMCD receives any request for public records concerning Decatur, MCEMCD shall provide Decatur with a copy of any such request prior to the release of the requested records and give Decatur at least 72 hours to object. MCEMCD will provide Decatur with a copy of any records produced by MCEMCD in response to the request.”
In plain English, the City of Decatur is demanding to be notified if anyone — be it the news media or a private citizen — requests public records such as 911 transcripts and then have at least three days to object to their release. The contract gives the Decatur Police Department the unilateral ability to hide from the public documents the Legislature has deemed public.
While there are privacy concerns related to 911 calls, state law already strikes a balance by distinguishing between transcripts and the actual audio and by requiring a fee for transcripts.
Also, there are many incidents when multiple agencies may respond. If those other agencies demand similar contracts, any one of them could have a potential veto over the release of information related to any or all of them. For the taxpayer simply seeking information, this is an undue and potentially insurmountable set of hurdles. The Decatur contract sets a bad precedent.
We hope the Decatur City Council strikes this provision before approving the new 911 contract. At a time when tensions between law enforcement and the people they are meant to serve and protect are at heights not seen since the tail end of the 1960s, citizens need more transparency, not less. That is how law enforcement gains and maintains public trust.