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Iowa bill to keep many 911 calls secret will not advance

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa bill that would have eliminated public access to the content of many 911 calls in the state by making them medical records will not advance this session, a legislative spokesman confirmed Monday.

Caleb Hunter, communications director for the Iowa Senate’s Republican majority, said the bill was being sent back to a legislative committee instead of being put on the debate calendar. The procedural move means the legislation will not be taken up by the full chamber this session.

The bill would have declared that audio, video and transcripts of 911 calls involving injured people are confidential medical records and exempt from Iowa’s open records law. It meant authorities’ initial response to shootings, stabbings and many other incidents could have faced less scrutiny. Calls involving minors would have automatically become confidential.

While states often debate which 911 calls should be public records, the sweeping Iowa measure was considered rare. Hunter said Monday the bill wasn’t ready, after some Republicans expressed concerns about its impact on body cameras.

“The members wanted to kind of hold tight and do a little bit more research on the bill before doing anything farther,” he said.

A GOP lawmaker introduced the legislation in response to the release of 911 calls to The Associated Press last year that exposed a string of gun accidents in an Iowa County that killed two teens and injured a third.

The emergency management coordinator in the county, Mindy Benson, told the AP she sought language in the bill that would prevent the release of all 911 calls involving juveniles but doesn’t know where the medical privacy provisions came from. She said children’s privacy should outweigh the public’s right to access 911 recordings, even if the child’s deceased.

Some Republicans later defended the bill, saying medical privacy outweighs the public’s access to 911 calls.

While the bill was approved unanimously in the Republican-majority Iowa House, opposition mounted after the AP reported on it. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa registered against the bill. The Iowa Newspaper Association said it opposed the bill in its current form and was working with lawmakers to change it.

AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said in early April that the news cooperative opposes the measure.

“Shielding 911 calls from the Iowa public records law would deprive the public of important information it needs in order to properly evaluate government behavior,” she said.

Democratic Sen. Tony Bisignano, ranking member of a committee that considered the legislation, said he was relieved the bill was on pause for the rest of the session. The bill could be taken up next year, but he said he expects it would undergo major revisions. He said he reached out to the newspaper association after reading AP’s reporting on the bill.

“When someone brings something to your attention, take it seriously, especially when it’s coming from a news source,” he said. “You need to look at it and read it and say, ‘Wow, this bill needs to be pulled back.'”

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