Iowa Legislature revives bill limiting access to 911 calls
DES MOINES, Iowa — The Iowa Legislature is reviving a bill that would limit the public’s access to many 911 calls.
The Republican-controlled Iowa Senate put the measure on hold last year after concerns were raised about its far-reaching implications for accessing records. More than eight weeks into the session, a three-person panel is scheduled Tuesday to review it.
The legislation would declare that audio, video and transcripts of 911 calls involving injured people are confidential medical records and exempt from Iowa’s open records law. If enacted, authorities’ initial response to shootings, stabbings and many other incidents could face less public scrutiny. Another provision would make calls involving minors automatically confidential.
The GOP-controlled Iowa House passed the bill last year with unanimous bipartisan support and no debate. Some Democrats in the House later acknowledged they didn’t realize the scope of the legislation, in part because it was framed as a measure about protecting children’s privacy.
Sen. Dan Dawson, a Council Bluffs Republican who will oversee the upcoming subcommittee meeting on the bill, said the proposal needs changes, though he didn’t specify how it should be altered. He sees room for records exemptions, particularly in cases where information becomes available quickly in the aftermath of a homicide case. He worries that could taint a jury pool tied to an eventual trial.
“This is something we’re going to air out and see what we can and can’t come to a compromise on,” he said. “I don’t think this is a piece of legislation that is certainly set in stone.”
The legislation was introduced last year in response to the release of 911 calls to The Associated Press, which exposed a string of gun accidents in an Iowa county that killed two teens and injured a third.
Rep. Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton who voted for the bill last spring, said she now opposes the measure. Wolfe said she sees a need to clarify current exemptions in Iowa’s open records law, though not through this legislation.
“I don’t think we need that bill,” she said.
The proposal would need to advance out of a full Senate committee in the next two weeks to survive a legislative deadline. If the bill is amended and makes it out of the full Senate, it would need to be approved again in the House.
Sen. Pam Jochum, who serves on the Senate State Government Committee that could soon take up the bill, said she values transparency and wants the bill to get major revisions. Yet the Dubuque Democrat also understands a desire to keep some records private, particularly those involving children.
“That’s where I’m having some heartburn,” she said about not dismissing some provisions in the bill.
Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, emphasized the unintended consequences of lawmakers deciding some 911 records should be private based on a medical condition or age. The AP’s access to 911 records involving children shed light on gun violence in Iowa, he said.
Separately, high-profile child abuse cases in the state have received more attention in part because news organizations accessed critical 911 records.
All this information is in the public interest, Evans said. He warned if lawmakers decide to add exemptions to public records, they need more time than the dwindling weeks of the current session.
“The Legislature needs to proceed cautiously,” he said.