June 20, 2016 – Miami Herald
Who was Omar Mateen? What happened inside Pulse nightclub during a shooting that left 49 people dead, not including Mateen himself?
City, state and federal officials aren’t helping the public answer these questions.
The city of Orlando has so far refused to release 911 tapes from the shooter, citing several exemptions that some public records experts say don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Journalists have also battled with county and state agencies over Mateen’s school records, his brief stint as a a Florida Department of Corrections officer, and emergency calls from his family home that date to the turn of the millennium.
“As a rule, when government clamps down on access to information, it causes more questions and more concerns than if they went ahead and released the information,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the St. Petersburg-based First Amendment Foundation. “Why are they holding onto these records when they don’t have to? It’s creating doubt.”
Two dozen media outlets have requested the release of 911 calls and radio communications from the night of the shooting. Florida’s public record laws generally allow for the release of such calls.
But Orlando has refused. In a letter dated June 16, City Attorney Mayanne Downs said releasing 911 calls would be a violation of a Florida law that makes photographs, videos or audio recordings showing “the killing of a person” exempt from disclosure, available only to family members.
That law was opposed as overly broad and restrictive by transparency advocates when it went into effect following the deaths of two Tampa-area police officers in 2011. The deaths were caught on a police dashboard camera.
Monday’s disclosure by the FBI calls into question whether the exemption cited by Orlando is relevant.
The statute applies to “all acts or events that cause or otherwise relate to the death of any human being, including any related acts or events immediately preceding or subsequent to the acts or events that were the proximate cause of death.”
The FBI transcript indicates that no shots were fired in the three hours between Mateen’s initial assault on the club and his death at the hands of police. That means the calls likely do not record any gunshots or deaths.
“What the feds are doing by releasing transcripts may put pressure on Orlando,” said Petersen, of the First Amendment Foundation. “Even though it’s partially redacted, what’s the point of holding onto it for Orlando now?”
And state legislators recently amended the public-records law to apply only to on-duty law enforcement officers. Those changes don’t go into effect until Oct. 1, meaning news organizations may have to go to court to seek access before then.
The city also said the tapes are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
But Daniel Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said Florida law generally treats such calls as public.
…“We believe these are public records under Florida law and the fact that a federal agency is investigating doesn’t change state law,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, president of the Florida Society of News Editors and executive editor of the Miami Herald. “State news organizations, as well as national news outlets, have been waiting patiently for these records. Now it seems clear that the city of Orlando is simply stalling.” [READ MORE]