NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I’m sympathetic to Jordan Gonnering and his family.
On May 1st, 2008 he came home to the apartment he shared with his fiance, and found her beaten body. He called 9-1-1 to summon the police, and so began the Brittany Zimmerman murder investigation in Madison.
The tape of the 9-1-1 has been part of the news media’s coverage of the story. Gonnering and his family say they relive that day every time they hear the tape. And they’ve heard it a lot on tv and radio newscasts and newspaper web sites.
The Gonnering and Zimmerman families are proposing a state law that would block police from releasing 9-1-1 tapes to the news media. We’d have access to transcripts, but not the audio recordings. The idea has been put into legislative form, sponsored by Amy Sue Vruwink (D-Miladore).
Why does the public have the right to hear distressed, panicked calls from people calling 9-1-1? The same Brittany Zimmerman murder provides the answer.
There was an earlier 9-1-1 call that very same day. Zimmerman made it from her cellphone as she was being attacked. That call was mishandled by the Dane County dispatch center. It was incorrectly treated as a hang-up. The call was never traced. The call’s very existence was never forwarded to Madison police for investigation.
This call has never been made public, as courts have ruled that it’s part of an open criminal investigation – and releasing it could compromise the case. But, someday it will be released. And the public has the right to hear it and draw their own conclusions. Were the police dispatchers incompetent? Is it possible they didn’t hear the sounds of the struggle in the noisy dispatch center? Was Dane County right to settle its lawsuit with the Zimmerman family over this tape? Should the dispatcher be fired over it? The dispatcher’s supervisor? If the tape was forwarded to Madison police, would the have had any actionable information about the case? Should procedures be changed over how supposed hang-up calls are handled? All of these are legitimate public policy questions. The public could not draw its own conclusions from a transcript.
And there was an attempt to cover-up what was on this tape. Law enforcement sources initially said there was nothing on it. Others said the call was not mishandled. Others said the Zimmermans had no case if they wanted to sue. All of that turns out to be false.
This is an unusual and tragic homicide case. What isn’t unusual is what happens when some public records are off-limits. Abuse of power surely follows. That’s why limiting access to 9-1-1 calls is a bad idea.
Operations Manager-Midwest Communications, Wausau