Tulsa officials refuse to release 911 recordings

The city of Tulsa’s Legal Department won’t release recordings of two calls made to police following a state trooper-involved fatal shooting at a local motel, the Tulsa World reported today.

The newspaper noted that the city has released at least seven other 911 recordings since 2010.

And after Tulsa’s municipal employees union sued the city in June for access to a 911 recording, a city spokeswoman told the Tulsa World that the city considered 911 recordings to be public records and released them regularly.

But this week, Assistant City Attorney Shelton Benedict told the newspaper, “There’s nothing in the (state) Open Records Act that says produce audio, and if you’ve got it in the past, my guess is that that would fall under the discretionary part.”

The Open Records Act lists radio logs among the records that “law enforcement agencies shall make available for public inspection.” (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.8(A)(4))

The Open Records Act doesn’t define radio logs. However, an attorney general opinion interpreting the statute’s previous version indicated that radio logs include “any recorded electronic transmissions made between the police dispatcher(s) and other parties.” (1984 OK AG 119, ¶ 22)

“[R]ecorded electronic transactions with the police department are subject to the Open Records Act,” said the opinion, relying upon a Wyoming case and upon Oklahoma cases broadly interpreting the term “record.” (Id. ¶ 28)

The Tulsa Police Department’s news media policy — mimicking the current statute’s definition — defines records as

All documents, including but not limited to, any book, paper, photograph (including mugshots), microfilm, computer tape, disk, record, sound recording, film recording, video recording, or other material regardless of physical form or characteristic, created by, received by, under the authority of, or coming into the custody, control, or possession of the Tulsa Police Department.

The lawsuit filed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1180 is pending in Tulsa County District Court. Neither side has yet explained in court filings why 911 recordings are or aren’t public under the Open Records Act. (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1180 v. City of Tulsa, No. CV-2013-690 (Tulsa Co. Dist. Ct. June 5, 2013)

Such recordings are routinely released by law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma. These records should be open to the public because they can reveal serious problems in the 911 system.

In June, for example, Delaware County residents “expressed outrage over slow response times and inadequate training by 911 dispatchers in incidents where several people, including three children, have died in the past nine months,” the Tulsa World reported.

Most of the anger centered on the drowning death of a 7-year-old girl at the Eucha State Park pool. According to the media reports, the 911 dispatcher can be heard making several blunders during the nearly six-minute call, including misdialing the telephone number for the Jay Police Department. The sheriff requested an outside investigation into the 911 call.

Residents also were angry over the 911 call related to the death of a 3-year-old in a house fire near Lakemont Shore.

“The (911) dispatcher told her (the mother) to hang up and call the sheriff’s office,” a resident told county commissioners. “Who has time to look through a telephone book?”

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors.