Today, nearly a year after Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., officials finally released recordings of 911 calls made from the scene of that horrifying crime. The long delay was due to opposition by the state’s attorney Stephen Sedensky, who oversaw the investigation of the massacre and in the process became so concerned about the feelings of victims’ families that he lost sight of his legal obligations. Sedensky fell far short of showing that the 911 recordings qualified for any of the recognized exceptions to Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act, which creates a presumption in favor of making public records public.
There are important reasons for that presumption, starting with the premise that government accountability requires transparency. As Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott observed last week when he rejected Sedensky’s effort to keep the Sandy Hook calls under wraps, “release of the audio recordings will assist the public in gauging the appropriateness of law enforcement’s response.” The recordings also can help the public judge the propriety of legislative responses to the massacre, such as limits on the size of ammunition magazines. The sound of gunshots in the background of the calls is one piece of evidence concerning the pace at which Lanza fired his rifle, which illuminates the question of whether the seconds needed to switch magazines could have made an important difference in the deadliness of his assault.
We know from other highly publicized events that public access to primary materials like 911 audio can aid understanding, restoring nuances that may have been lost in translation by government agencies and news outlets. To pick one especially egregious example, NBC News last year edited the call that George Zimmerman made to police in Sanford, Fla., on the night he shot Trayvon Martin so that Zimmerman seemed to be citing the teenager’s race as a reason to be suspicious of him. The full recording, which was posted online when the case became a national story, made it clear that Zimmerman was merely responding to a question from the police dispatcher when he said Martin “looks black.” More generally, the recording of that call was important evidence in assessing the prosecution’s claim that Zimmerman shot Martin in anger rather than in self-defense.
Zimmerman’s postacquittal legal troubles also were illuminated by 911 audio, like the Nov. 18 call in which his girlfriend reported that he aimed a shotgun at her during a fight, which paints a more complicated picture than that bare-bones description suggests. The recording does not resolve whether she was telling the truth, but it does lend some credibility to a charge that figured prominently in Zimmerman’s murder trial: that he is an aggressor who is good at playing the victim.
It certainly is true that 911 recordings can be used for less edifying purposes as well: to titillate the public, for instance, or feed the passions that promote political panics. But so can every artifact or piece of evidence associated with a sensational crime, and we cannot have the good without the bad. Like Sedensky’s doomed effort to shield the families of Lanza’s victims from reminders of their loss, covering our ears will not make an ugly reality disappear, but paying close attention might make our response to it more rational.