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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Seattle Times editorial: Don’t use tragedy to reduce public records

Seattle Times

Seattle Times

A horrific tragedy should not become the foundation for a law to cut into government accountability. Washington’s Legislature must reject a proposal to remove from public disclosure 911 calls and other recorded interactions between police and juveniles.

This deeply flawed idea is the crux of House Bill 1408, sponsored by Rep. Mike Volz, R- Spokane. Noble intentions are not sufficient reason to sharply limit the public’s right to know how the emergency system functions.

The bill originated in a Renton family’s pain when a 14-year-old girl was killed during an alleged 2018 home invasion by her mother. The girl was in the middle of a 911 call when she was shot in the head. The mother, Svetlana Laurel, is in the King County Jail on murder charges, still awaiting trial. News coverage of the case went global. The girl’s father, Michael Gulizia, objected to a public-records request for the 911 call tape, desiring a semblance of private dignity. Anyone with a heart should feel sympathy. Volz’s bill to keep such calls from being disclosed without parental consent drew quick bipartisan support. A dozen lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors.

But the potential consequences for society outweigh even this profound grief. The public needs to be able to hear how dispatchers and other responders deal with young people. If those interactions get exempted from public records, a failure to take a child’s report of a dangerous situation seriously would be hidden from scrutiny and never lead to improvement. Reporting on how responsively authorities handle children’s 911 calls about school shootings or domestic violence would be severely limited.

This problem is real, not theoretical. In 2018, the same year as the Renton murder, 911 operators in Cincinnati failed to get rescuers to 16-year-old Kyle Plush, who called twice while trapped by a collapsed seat in a Honda Odyssey minivan. He died. The shoddy handling of his distress calls cost that city a $6 million settlement and led to years of reform of the emergency system – consequences that would have been impossible if Plush’s calls had been concealed.

House Bill 1408 would keep such recordings secret even after the caller died, unless the parents or guardians allowed disclosure, expanding privacy rights to benefit the deceased at the expense of potential public good. That would be a severe blow to investigative reporting’s ability to reveal the wrongful deaths of children. Law enforcement accountability begins when a call comes in. The public must continue to be able to supervise how authorities respond when children cry out for help. Voice recordings are also necessary to hear how authorities handle language barriers. Concealing them from public review would strike against efforts to eradicate systemic racism.