ANNAPOLIS (February 19, 2019)—In anticipation of an update to statewide 9-1-1 communication systems by 2021, gruesome imagery of crime scenes or injuries, individuals' medical histories and identification of domestic violence or rape victims may be protected from public view under legislation in the Maryland General Assembly.
Many aspects of a 9-1-1 call are currently available to the public through Maryland's Public Information Act, said House bill 215 sponsor Delegate Michael Jackson, D-Prince George's.
Senate bill 5, sponsored by Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, is identical and working its way through that chamber.
"I am all about public information, I am all about transparency and yet there needs to be a balance between transparency, government openness and personal privacy," Kagan said.
This new legislation follows a two-year effort passed last year designed to improve the current 9-1-1 communication network and systems throughout the state. Maryland is expected to transition all 24 of the state's jurisdictions to new "Next Generation 9-1-1" communications by Dec. 31, 2021, according to the commission report.
Next Generation 9-1-1 allows residents to communicate with emergency operators via texts, photos and videos.
The new system will allow callers and operators to "use the same communication tools that they use every day to talk to their families and neighbors," Montgomery County's 9-1-1 Communications Division Director Bill Ferretti said during a Feb. 5 bill hearing.
In November, a statewide, bipartisan commission released a 65-page report that included 23 recommendations on upgrades that could improve the Next Generation 9-1-1 system.
This new bill is a response to a privacy protection recommendation, which requires "special attention" to be paid when handling certain information under the Maryland Public Information Act, according to the report.
"The (Public Information Act) is a crucial tool that allows citizens to see the workings of our government," Jackson said. "However, (the law) is not designed to let someone into our neighbors' houses and lives during their most tragic time that they may experience."
Jackson stated that Next Generation 9-1-1 communication will allow operators to receive pictures and videos of incidents, as well as blueprints of buildings and locations that would help responders.
Through Next Generation 9-1-1, emergency responders will receive new types of information, which could subject victims to "public scrutiny," said Leslie Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties.
The legislation blocks release of information that could identify victims of rape, domestic violence or abuse, and certain health records.
"The potential for abusive use for such media, whether its victim shaming or posting on the internet by a vindictive neighbor, is extremely high. We've seen that in other states and we want to try and prevent that here," Knapp said.
Currently, 45 states have entered the planning stage of the Next Generation 9-1-1 communication integration. Four states—Indiana, Iowa, Maine and Vermont—have already implemented Next Generation 9-1-1.
While the new legislation is intended to protect the privacy and sensitive information of victims, others perceive the bill as a "blanket denial" that will affect the core of the Public Information Act, which is to establish government transparency and accountability.
Among those opposed to the new legislation are the Public Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
In testimony, the ACLU of Maryland said that the terms "gruesome and gory" are too subjective and could allow officials to withhold certain documents and information that should be disclosed to the public.
"We very much appreciate and support the interest in protecting domestic violence and victims of any kind of violence from further injury by having information disclosed," said Public Policy Director of the ACLU of Maryland Toni Holness. "The reality is, under our current Public Information Act, (it) gives officials broad discretion to deny a record if an investigation is pending."
In testimony, the ACLU of Maryland added that after an investigation is complete, officials may withhold documents if the disclosure would:
—Interfere with a valid and proper law enforcement proceeding;
—Deprive another person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication;
—Constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy;
—Disclose the identity of a confidential source;
—Disclose an investigative technique or procedure;
—Prejudice an investigation; or
—Endanger the life or physical safety of an individual.
In turn, the ACLU of Maryland argued that the new legislation is a "solution in search of a problem."
Under current law, denial of public records is broken down into two categories: required and discretionary denials.
Required denials allow officials to deny inspection of public records that are confidential or release would violate state or federal laws or a court order, according to a state analysis.
Discretionary denials provide officials the opportunity to deny inspection of a public record if they believe it would be against the public interest, including investigatory records, or information related to academic, licensing or employment examinations, according to the Maryland Public Information Act.
The legislation also blocks certain information provided by third parties.