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Opposition Grows to Iowa Bill Making Many 911 Calls Secret

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa denounced the bill, saying it could prevent the release of information surrounding disputed police shootings

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    Opposition Grows to Iowa Bill Making Many 911 Calls Secret
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    In this file photo, Des Moines police officers secure the crime scene where a Des Moines police officer was shot and killed in his squad car overnight on November 2, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.

    Civil rights groups, media advocates and some lawmakers are opposing an Iowa bill that would end public access to many 911 calls, a broadly-worded measure that also could shield some police videos.

    The bill declares that 911 calls involving injured people are confidential "medical records" and exempt from Iowa's open records law. The secrecy would apply to audio and video "not limited to" the call recordings themselves, a clause that critics fear could apply to videos documenting the aftermath of officer-involved shootings. Calls made by minors under the age of 18 or about minors would also become secret.

    The bill passed the Iowa House unanimously with little debate, with backers saying it would protect medical privacy and the privacy of children. But a chorus of opposition has emerged as the Senate considers whether to schedule it for a vote, the final approval needed before going to Gov. Terry Branstad.

    While states often debate which 911 calls should be public records, the sweeping Iowa measure appears rare. One organization that tracks state legislation said the ambiguous wording could be interpreted to include cameras and microphones attached to officers' uniforms and cars.

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    "This is, to my knowledge, a very unique definition of a medical record," said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "And one that could have some unintended consequences that could limit transparency and accountability of police."

    Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, defended the language last week. He said it was intended to shield "anything that would be linked with audio or video of that medical call," including video from body cameras and security cameras at dispatch centers.

    "We have an obligation to our constituents to make sure we're protecting their medical information," he said.

    Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix's office said it's still evaluating whether to pursue the bill. Branstad's spokesman was noncommittal on whether he'd sign it.

    Its sponsor has said the legislation is a response to the release of 911 calls last year to The Associated Press related to three accidental shootings in Tama County that killed and injured adolescent girls.

    The county's emergency management coordinator, Mindy Benson, said she sought language that would prevent the release of all 911 calls involving juveniles but doesn't know where the medical privacy provisions came from. She said children's privacy should outweigh the public's right to access 911 recordings, even if the child's deceased.

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    "It's about protecting kids and to try to let them and their families heal," she said.

    AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said the news cooperative opposes the measure.

    "Shielding 911 calls from the Iowa public records law would deprive the public of important information it needs in order to properly evaluate government behavior," she said.

    Some Democratic senators opposed the bill last week, with one saying she was confused about its scope. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa denounced the bill, saying it could prevent the release of information surrounding disputed police shootings.

    The Iowa Newspaper Association said that it opposed the bill in its current form and is "working with lawmakers to limit the legislation to specific medical information not related to the incident."

    Carol Hunter, executive editor of The Des Moines Register, said residents should be "deeply troubled" about the prospect of 911 calls being shielded. Her reporters have used calls to shed light on the deaths of four police officers recently killed on duty.

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    "Calls can reveal delays in emergency response, provide valuable context about the difficult circumstances law enforcement officers confront and offer key evidence in those rare instances when officers' actions were inappropriate," she said.

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    Ryan Foley can be reached on Twitter at @rjfoley. Barbara Rodriguez can be reached at @bcrodriguez