The California Public Records Act, or CPRA, makes state and local agency records, including emergency 911 call records, available for public inspection and copying. In California, the people's right to access "information concerning the conduct of the people's business" is included in the text of Article 1, Section 3(b)(1) of the state's constitution.
Law Enforcement Agencies Keep Records
In California, 911 calls are deemed a matter of public record, and the CPRA makes these records available to the public. This statute was originally enacted in 1968 and has been further solidified by the 2004 addition of the people's right to access to "information concerning the conduct of the people's business" following the success of California Proposition 59.
Under the CPRA, a law enforcement agency that receives 911 calls is responsible for maintaining full and accurate records of each call, including electronic or digital copies of the call itself. Requests for copies of such calls or any documents relating to those calls should be directed to the agency that took the call and manages those records. For example, those looking for 911 records in Los Angeles, will want to contact the Los Angeles Police Department.
Make a CPRA Request for 911 Calls and Transcripts
You can make 911 records requests verbally or in writing to the specific agency that holds the records, such as local law enforcement departments. The best practice is to compose a written request that provides as much information identifying the call as possible. For example, if you know the exact date of the call, that information will help the agency locate the correct records.
If you don't know the exact date, provide an estimate or date range for the call, as well as the names and addresses of parties involved in the underlying incident and a general description of the incident. This information will enable the agency to more accurately and quickly locate the requested records
Limitations on Requests
Law enforcement agencies may withhold information in CPRA requests to protect a party's privacy. For example, a 911 tape may include the name of a minor child or a person's personal phone number and home address.
An agency can also withhold a record under the broad exception that more harm than good would come to the public by its disclosure. For example, if releasing a 911 tape would create a homeland security threat or jeopardize an ongoing, active law enforcement investigation, the government agency has the right to deny a request for its disclosure.
Other State Laws That Bar 911 Call Disclosure
In some states, legislation has been proposed, or in some cases already enacted, to exempt 911 emergency call recordings and transcripts from disclosure to the public under Freedom of Information laws. Alabama and Ohio were two of the first states to adopt such laws. Some measures allow members of the press to listen to recordings but not to publish those recordings in digital format, while still others allow agencies to release call transcripts only.
Preventing the Disclosure of 911 Calls
In most cases, individuals who call 911 for emergency assistance have no control over whether or to what extent their calls may be disclosed to the public or press. While California authorities typically redact, or bleep out, personal identifying information, such as names and addresses, before making the calls available, other jurisdictions may follow different rules. In those cases, the callers or their survivors do not generally have the power to ask for additional privacy edits.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, New York City officials declined to release 911 calls made by individuals from the World Trade Center before the towers collapsed. The New York Times and family members of the victims who made those calls sued the city to compel disclosure. They won access from the New York State Court of Appeals, which also permitted the city to remove the voices of the callers, leaving only the 911 operator voices audible to the press, though unredacted tapes were given to the families.
- First Amendment Center: 911 Recording and Transcripts State Statutes
- CA Legislative Information: Title 1, Division 7, Chapter 3.5
- Justia: California Constitution - Article 1 Declaration of Rights
- First Amendment Coalition: Sample CPRA Request Letter
- Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: State proposals would limit access to 911 calls
- Slate: This Call May Be Recorded (and Distributed)