Going Quiet: Rhode Island among the states hiding 911 recordings from families, lawyers, and the general public
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’s younger brother Scott, 46, had stopped for lunch at a Subway sandwich shop in Cranston and collapsed. Scott Phillips was rushed to Rhode Island Hospital.
He died of hypertensive cardiovascular disease, according to his death certificate.
In the months since, Troy Phillips — a volunteer firefighter and licensed EMT — has been trying to piece together what happened the day his brother died.
“Being an EMT,” 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, along with the Globe, 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.
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.
Now, states across the country are looking to curb access, a trend that troubles media representatives and others. While about a dozen states now generally consider 911 records confidential, just six states did in 2014.
This year, bills to prohibit or restrict access to 911 recordings have been introduced in Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee, and Texas.
“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?”
R.I. restrictions in the ’90s
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.
Outrage over the call’s broadcast spurred one of the most restrictive statutes in the country.
Then-senator 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 prosecutor’s wife at the time, the 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.
In 2003, the Journal 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, 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 Journal 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.
“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.”
Looking for answers
Journalists and their lawyers aren’t the only ones who have been frustrated in their effort to get access to 911 records.
After his brother Scott died, Troy Phillips found out that when he collapsed on the afternoon of Oct. 23, 2018, an unidentified person at the Subway shop called 911.
Phillips has been trying to reach the manager of the 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 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 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, a New Hampshire state trooper.
Jamie Phillips said he e-mailed 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.)
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?”
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.
The last time Troy saw Scott was at their family’s lake house in Connecticut. 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.