Why It’s Important to Listen to the Sandy Hook 911 Tapes

Covering our ears will not make an ugly reality disappear, but paying close attention might make our response to it more rational

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Residents Claire Swanson, Ian Fuchs, Kate Suba, Jaden Albrecht and Simran Chand hold candles at a memorial for victims on the first Sunday following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 16, 2012

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.

(MORE: 911 Dispatchers Reacted Calmly to Sandy Hook School Shooting)

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.

Sullum is a senior editor at Reason, a nationally syndicated columnist and a drug-policy blogger at Forbes.

MORE: There Is No Such Thing as a Motive for Mass Killings

4 comments
Sigh...
Sigh...

 @VikeSavothNo screaming. No gunshots. No dead children seen by any caller. No sirens. No time data. A commanding 911 male dispatcher sounds like he is reading from a script.  Female dispatcher Jen in background can be heard saying to her caller "there is a rumor that this is fake."  Her boss sternly orders Jen off the phone. He tells emergency responders to wait outside. Female victim calls in her own GSW and blandly explains that she has been shot in foot. 911 officer asks if she is safe and she says "I think so."  How does custodian, on phone with 911, know police have arrived? He hears voices. Police can then be heard presumably shooting their way into the back entrance.


At least three calls were accidentally hung up on, several 911 calls were never answered at all, and two callers were rudely cut short before they were allowed to finish a sentence.  Pass out the awards!  Newtown gave out awards the their HEROIC 911 operators who were described to have handled 150 calls per hour.  Enhanced audio shows clear evidence of editing and layering. So we get 7 heavily layered and edited calls?

HowardOwens
HowardOwens

Of interest, I think, in New York, the tapes couldn't be released. There is a law here that specifically prohibits the release of 911 recordings or transcripts.

jkozlowski219
jkozlowski219

I probable wouldn't want to listen to those tapes, but should they be available? Of course they should.

VikeSavoth
VikeSavoth

I'm all for transparency and accountability but I am also all for common decency. I think it's delusional to think that the information Time claims can be gleaned from people screaming and gun shots being fired cannot be secured through just as accurate but more human ways.  No - the prosecutor should be commended for seeking discretion. There's a thin line between transparency and voyeurism and this decision to release this audio horror show crosses that line.