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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily

OPINION

Public's trust was abused on 911 call

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Sometimes, it makes sense to be cynical.

This May, a week after Isthmus broke the story of how county officials failed to send help in response to a 911 call from murdered UW student Brittany Zimmermann, I reflected on the wall of silence that public officials had erected around the content of the call:

"My guess is that Zimmermann made clear her need for help before the call went silent, and that this is the only reason this communication is being suppressed" ("Secrets and Lies," 5/9/08).

It now appears that such speculation was correct.

The Wisconsin State Journal this week reported that a woman's screams and sounds of a struggle can be heard on the call, according to police. But the cops were not dispatched until 48 minutes later, after Zimmermann's fiancé discovered her body. There is also a reference to "cell phone parts" in an inventory of items found at the scene, suggesting that Zimmermann's phone was smashed.

These disclosures are contained in search warrants (see the report by Jason Shepard) released after authorities dropped the ball on seeking continued secrecy.

For months Madison police, county officials and the district attorney's office have insisted that releasing information about the contents of the tape would severely harm their ongoing investigation. They have aggressively opposed this in their public statements and an open records lawsuit brought by media organizations.

But now police are saying this week's accidental release will not have any long-term negative impact on their investigation.

The authorities are either lying now or they were lying before, when they offered contrary claims. My guess is that they were lying before, in making justifications for secrecy.

In either case, our local public officials have some explaining to do. Why did they hide this information from the public, if not to keep people from knowing how badly the system screwed up?

Why did a union official publicly claim that she listened to the tape and heard nothing of significance, beyond some slight rustling?

Why did County Executive Kathleen Falk initially suggest that Madison Police Chief Noble Wray was in error in saying the 911 call contained evidence that should have resulted in police being dispatched to Zimmermann's home?

Why are officials still insisting that releasing the audio of the 911 call - which will doubtless underscore the enormity of this screwup - will somehow compromise their investigation?

Were these people all lying to us? My guess is yes.

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