It’s been an article of undisputed faith among Florida cops, prosecutors and journalists for decades that phone calls to 911 are public records. Media lawyers were flabbergasted when Orlando police refused to turn over recordings of the 911 calls made during the murderous shootout inside the Pulse nightclub that left 49 people dead, reports the Orlando Sentinel.
At the same time, they weren’t surprised. “This is the way it’s been headed for the past several years,” said Rachel Fugate, a Tampa specialist in media law who represents two dozen news organizations suing to force the disclosure of the recordings. “All around Florida, government agencies are showing an increasing disinclination to turn over documents that are just obviously, inarguably public.”
The importance of the 911 calls is seemingly obvious, too: What callers said to the operators during the bloody three-hour massacre would help resolve the dispute between police, who say nearly all the killing took place in the first few minutes, and some witnesses, who insist that the gunman continued sporadically murdering survivors throughout the night. It would help evaluate whether the police decision to delay a final assault on the gunman’s position in the rear of the club was wise, or whether it cost additional lives. It might shed light on the question of whether some of the victims inside Pulse were accidentally killed by police fire.
It also could scuttle the growing body of sinister theories that the Pulse killings were not the work of a lone terrorist but something much bigger and darker. “This is exactly where conspiracy theories come from,” said Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “When you withhold information, nearly everybody assumes the worst.”