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Going Quiet: More States Are Hiding 911 Recordings From Families, Lawyers and the General Public

Published: July 16, 2019
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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

This article was produced in partnership with The Public’s Radio, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. It was co-published with the Boston Globe.

Troy Phillips was repairing a propane filling station on Cape Cod one afternoon last October when his mother called, her voice frantic.

“Something happened to Scott!”

Phillips’ younger brother Scott had been rushed to the hospital. Troy’s first thought was that Scott, who worked as a truck driver, must have been hurt in an accident. His mother was so upset on the phone that he could barely understand what she was saying.

Then she blurted out, “He died!”

At Rhode Island Hospital, Phillips learned that his 46-year-old brother had stopped for lunch at a Subway sandwich shop, in Cranston, when he collapsed.

The cause of death was hypertensive cardiovascular disease, according to his death certificate.

In the months since his brother’s death, Phillips — a volunteer firefighter and licensed EMT — has been trying to piece together what happened the day Scott died.

“Being an EMT,” Troy Phillips said, “you just want to know, what happened?”

But he keeps hitting a wall.

Rhode Island is one of about a dozen states that prohibit the release of 911 recordings or transcripts without the written consent of the caller or by court order. The goal generally is to protect the privacy of callers in what may be one of the most stressful moments of their lives.

But Rhode Island’s restrictive law also keeps families in the dark about how the state’s 911 system has responded to calls involving their loved ones, and it has left the public oblivious to troubling gaps in how the system is performing, according to an investigation by The Public’s Radio and ProPublica.

In March, the news organizations reported on the 2018 death of a 6-month-old baby in Warwick after a Rhode Island 911 call taker failed to give CPR instructions to the family. The lapse came to light after a family member who took part in the 911 call requested a copy of the recording.

In June, the news organizations reported on the death of Rena Fleury, a 45-year-old woman who collapsed while watching her son’s high school football game in Cumberland last year. Four unidentified bystanders called 911. But none of the 911 call takers recognized that Fleury was in cardiac arrest. And none of them instructed the callers to perform CPR.

The 911 recordings for Fleury were never made public. An emergency physician who treated Fleury testified about what happened during a state House committee hearing in March.

Across the country, recordings of 911 calls for accidents, medical emergencies, mass shootings and natural disasters have provided insight into the workings of public safety systems and, in some cases, revealed critical failings.

After the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando in 2016, recordings of 911 calls showed operators whose lines were so flooded they had to disconnect with some of the victims inside the club so they could answer other calls.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, recordings of 911 calls exposed systemic problems in the 911 center. Information about a woman’s deteriorating medical condition wasn’t communicated from one call taker to another, as required by national guidelines, The New York Times reported.

And in Maine, transcripts of a 911 call made by two teenagers minutes before they were killed by their landlord in 2012 showed that the teenagers had reported the landlord’s “death threats.” Police who responded to the 911 call had concluded it was a “civil matter” and left.

But states across the country are looking to curb access, a trend that troubles media representatives and others.

“Oftentimes, 911 calls are one of the primary sources of information for the public to learn what happened,” said Adam A. Marshall, a lawyer for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to journalists. They “can show what government officials did in response. And that allows the public to evaluate, are the 911 calls working properly?”


Troy Phillips comes from a family of first responders. The oldest of three brothers, he’s a captain at the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department in his family’s hometown of Burrillville, Rhode Island. His youngest brother, Jamie, is a New Hampshire state trooper. And Scott, the middle brother, for years volunteered as a firefighter in Rhode Island.

As a trained EMT, Troy Phillips knows that when a person’s heart stops, immediately performing CPR increases the odds of survival. So after Scott died, he started asking questions.

He found out that when Scott collapsed on the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2018, an unidentified person at the Subway sandwich shop called 911.

 

A photograph of Scott Phillips, center, with brothers Jamie, left, and Troy at Scott’s wedding two years ago. (Kayana Szymczak, special to ProPublica)

In Rhode Island, all 911 calls are answered by the state 911 emergency center in Scituate. The calls are then transferred to local public safety departments, which dispatch personnel and equipment.

At 12:58 p.m., a 911 call for “medical assistance” came into the Cranston Fire Department dispatcher. The dispatcher logged the call as “someone unconscious and not breathing,” said Paul Casey, director of the Cranston Emergency Medical Services.

About six minutes after that, when the EMTs arrived, nobody was performing CPR, Casey said.

In the world of emergency medical services, the absence of bystander CPR is a red flag. Every minute delay in performing CPR on a person in cardiac arrest decreases his or her chances of survival by as much as 10%, according to the American Heart Association.

Casey said his department’s records show that Cranston EMTs did everything by the book. They performed CPR on scene for 30 minutes, in accordance with state protocols. They provided medications and other advanced life support. And they continued CPR during the ambulance ride to Rhode Island Hospital.

But Casey said he hasn’t heard the 911 recording and doesn’t know what happened during the six minutes before the EMTs arrived.

Troy Phillips wants to know: Did the 911 call taker instruct the caller to perform CPR? Did anyone at the sandwich shop try to help?

“To know that somebody was maybe trying to help him out or do something,” he said. “You know cuz I know he felt alone.”


In Rhode Island, 911 calls were public until the mid-1990s, when a local TV station broadcast a 911 call from the wife of a top prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office. “My husband just beat on me,” the woman could be heard crying when WJAR-Channel 10 broadcast the recording.

The husband was never charged in the case, though the TV station asked whether Johnston police handled the situation differently because he was a public official, according to The Providence Journal. Channel 10 subsequently reported that the town found no misconduct by the police, the newspaper said.

Dan Salamone, Channel 10’s news director at the time, defended the station’s coverage of the case. The 911 recording “may not be conclusive to what happened that night, but I think it was very telling,” he told the Journal in 1996.

Outrage over the call’s broadcast spurred one of the most restrictive statutes in the country.

Then-Sen. Bradford Gorham, a Republican from Foster, introduced a bill in January 1996 to prevent the public from accessing any recordings or transcripts of 911 calls. Gorham said at the time that he was acting on a complaint about “tabloid journalism” from a friend of the official’s wife at the time, The Providence Journal reported. (Gorham died in 2015.)

Supporters of the bill included the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Steven Brown, the ACLU chapter’s executive director, said the organization’s support was based on the “privacy values in not having these often very intimate types of calls just available to everybody in the public.”

But over the years, the interpretation of the law by the courts has been “problematic,” Brown said, because judges have denied access to 911 recordings even when they would serve the public interest. He said the ACLU would support adding a “good cause mechanism” in the law to allow for the release of 911 calls if it can be shown that there is an “important public service in knowing what’s in those calls.”

That same argument was made by the lawyer representing The Providence Journal in 2003, when the newspaper sued the town of West Warwick in Kent County Superior Court for access to public safety records — including 911 calls — following The Station nightclub fire, which killed 100 people and injured more than 200 others.

Among the patrons who died in the nightclub fire, authorities told the newspaper, were two people found in the women’s bathroom, cellphones to their ears. The newspaper reported that firefighters recovered one of the cellphones that showed the last call was to 911.

Joseph V. Cavanagh Jr., who represented the newspaper in the suit, said the 911 calls could have answered questions about how the police, fire and other first responders performed during the fire.

In response, Judge Mark A. Pfieffer ordered the release of troves of records, including 277 telephone and radio communications from police and firefighters. But the judge withheld recordings of more than two dozen 911 calls.

Pfieffer cited the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act’s recognition of the “desirability of preserving individual dignity,” saying in his ruling that “this Court cannot conceive of a greater affront to such dignity than permitting others to listen to the anguish that is embodied in such communications.”

A consultant’s evaluation of the state’s response during the fire, released in July of 2004, revealed radio equipment failures that left many emergency workers unable to communicate with one another. The state spent tens of millions of dollars in homeland security funds for a statewide communication system.

Missing from the public discussion were the communications between 911 call takers and the patrons inside the burning nightclub. How were their calls for help answered? And what did the call takers tell the women trapped in the bathroom?

“Every case I ever was involved with the media, and I did this for a long time,” Cavanagh said, “we never got any 911 records.”


Journalists and their lawyers aren’t the only ones who have been frustrated in their effort to get access to 911 records.

Since his brother died, Troy Phillips has been trying to reach the manager of the Subway shop to find out who made the 911 call so he can request the caller’s permission to release the recording.

Phillips said he has called the Subway shop three times. The first two times, he said, he was told the manager wasn’t available and to call back. “And the third time,” he said, he was told “we can’t comment on it.”

Phone messages left by a reporter at the Subway shop on Park Avenue in Cranston and on the cellphone listed for the shop’s manager have not been returned.

So Phillips enlisted the help of his brother Jamie, the New Hampshire state trooper.

Jamie Phillips said he emailed a request to the 911 center and didn’t hear back. So he called and spoke to a woman there. He said she asked if he was the one who made the 911 call. He told her no. She said he’d need to get the caller’s permission or get a judge to subpoena the records. (State police confirmed that Jamie Phillips was told the proper protocol.)

Jamie Phillips said he understands the purpose of Rhode Island’s confidentiality law, but “I think that sucks for us.”

Troy Phillips said it makes no sense to withhold 911 recordings from family members to protect the person who made the call.

“They’ve done nothing wrong. They’ve done the ultimate thing. They’ve made that phone call to 911,” he said. “So what is the big secret?”


Even in states where 911 recordings aren’t protected, getting access to them can be daunting.

In Massachusetts, 911 recordings and transcripts are considered public. But MassLive reported that it requested more than a dozen 911 call recordings and transcripts from various agencies and received only the recording of a single 911 call from a local police department. In one case, the report said, the State 911 Department responded that it considers 911 calls exempt.

Nationwide, access to 911 records is becoming harder as state legislatures enact measures to limit what information can be released and under what circumstances, said Marshall, the lawyer for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Rhode Island is now among about a dozen states where 911 records are generally considered confidential, compared with just six states in 2014.

This year, bills to prohibit or restrict access to 911 recordings have been introduced in Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee and Texas.

In Texas, as in Rhode Island, the effort was prompted by the release of a 911 call that was broadcast on a TV newscast. But the outcome in Texas was very different than in Rhode Island.

Texas state Rep. Todd A. Hunter, a Republican, told the Austin American-Statesman that he introduced the bill after the broadcast of a 911 call made by victims of a 2015 flood that killed eight people in his city.

Among the victims was Hunter’s dentist and a member of his legislative staff.

The lone survivor of the group — a man who lost his wife and two young children — was among those who testified in favor of the bill.

Oscar A. Rodriguez, president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, apologized to the families for the TV stations that broadcast the 911 calls, testifying that they’d violated industry standards of “careful and judicious use.”

But, he said, “these failures were the exception,” and that “ensuring the public’s unfettered access to 911 recordings ... is a paramount importance to public safety.”

Rodriguez also pushed back on a proposal to limit the release of 911 records to transcripts only, saying that the tone of a person’s voice can reveal valuable information that isn’t apparent in a transcript.

The bill died in a state Senate committee.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said there were “reasonable minds” on both sides.

“There was an open dialogue,” Shannon said, “and in the end, the argument for transparency and holding government accountable won out.”


One evening in June, Troy Phillips and his wife, Juanita, sat at a conference table at the Oakland Mapleville Fire Department and talked about Scott.

He was a bear of a man with a strawberry blond goatee who seemed to get along with everyone. He called his mother every night, even after he got married and began living with his wife and stepson. Scott liked to make people laugh. He worked as a trucker and sometimes drove his 18-wheeler down the narrow, country road in Burrillville where Troy and his family lived, just to stop and chat.

“He was so upbeat,” Juanita said, her voice breaking.

At family gatherings, Scott would often be on stage, performing karaoke.

“He was a wicked singer,” Troy said, scrolling through Scott’s Facebook page.

Scott ran his own DJ business, Sounds Good Entertainment. For years, Scott was the DJ for the annual cystic fibrosis fundraiser at Slater Park in Pawtucket.

 

Troy Phillips shows a photograph of his late brother, Scott, holding Troy's son TJ years ago. Scott Phillips died in October 2018. (Kayana Szymczak, special to ProPublica)

On weekends and holidays, like the Fourth of July, the brothers and their spouses and kids would gather at their family’s lake house in Connecticut. Scott liked to ride around the woods on his four-wheeler.

The last time Troy saw Scott was at the lake house, when he was cleaning up the dock. Scott was riding his four-wheeler and Troy teased him that he bet he couldn’t do a wheelie. The next minute, Scott was kicking up the dirt doing wheelies and laughing.

At his funeral, several hundred people, including firefighters and police officers, some in uniform, packed the funeral home and spilled out the doors.

Juanita Phillips, a certified nursing assistant, said that every time she walks into a Subway sandwich shop, questions swirl in her mind. She said she knows people in restaurants are supposed to know how to prevent choking. She wonders, do they know how to perform CPR?

“We’re trying to find out what happened on the 911 call,” Troy Phillips said. “That’s what we want to know.”

“Being a firefighter and being that’s my brother,” he said, “it makes me feel horrible.”

 

ProPublica research reporting fellow Alex Mierjeski contributed to this report.

Lynn Arditi is a health reporter for The Public’s Radio in Providence, Rhode Island. Email her at larditi@thepublicsradio.org and follow her on Twitter at @LynnArditi.

Do you work in emergency medical response in Rhode Island? Help us investigate. We want to know what concerns Rhode Island’s emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics, emergency physicians, 911 telecommunicators and dispatchers have about the state’s emergency system and how it could better serve Rhode Islanders. Here’s how to contact us confidentially:

Have you ever called 911 for a medical emergency in Rhode Island? Fill out this form so we can get in touch and learn more.

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