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Kentucky police order YouTube to remove emergency dispatch audio

Kentucky State Police trooper Joseph Ponder, 31, in a photo released by the agency on Monday. (Photo: Kentucky State Police/handout)
Kentucky State Police trooper Joseph Ponder, 31, in a photo released by the agency on Monday. (Photo: Kentucky State Police/handout)

The Kentucky State Police department is demanding the video service YouTube remove audio containing a fallen state trooper’s last emergency dispatches.

On Thursday, the agency posted a message to Facebook urging citizens to write to YouTube after failing to convince the Google-owned site to remove the 10-minute-long audio.

The audio depicts a police pursuit involving trooper Joseph Ponder, 31, after a traffic stop involving 25-year-old Joseph Johnson-Shanks of Missouri. During the stop, Ponder discovered Johnson-Shanks had a suspended license and was in the process of booking a hotel room for the man in lieu of taking him into custody.

At some point during the stop, Johnson-Shanks decided to flee the scene. The trooper followed the suspect for nine miles before Johnson-Shanks’ car came to an abrupt stop. After firing a barrage of bullets at Ponder’s car, Johnson-Shanks fled the scene.

“Shots fired, shots fired,” Ponder tells dispatchers. “I’ve been hit, I’m passing out.”

A Samaritan who heard the gunfire came to Ponder’s assistance, informing dispatchers of their location and staying with the trooper until help could arrive.

Ponder later died at a hospital from his injuries. Hours later, Johnson-Shanks was confronted by police and was fatally shot after pointing a gun at officers, authorities said.

Shortly after the incident, an Illinois-based citizen news website called Rockford Scanner Service obtained audio of the chase and shooting from Broadcastify, an online database of live and archived emergency dispatch broadcasts.

Rockford Scanner took the audio file and uploaded it to YouTube, where the dispatch audio was listened to tens of thousands of times and repurposed by local news outlets covering the story.

This upset the Kentucky State Police, who fired off a request to YouTube ordering the video’s removal. According to the agency, YouTube said they “carefully reviewed” the request, but ultimately declined to delete the video.

In a Facebook post published Thursday evening, the Kentucky State Police urged citizens to contact YouTube via two e-mail addresses — including one reserved for media inquiries — demanding the video site remove the dispatch audio.

“The KSP encourage the public to refrain from sharing this audio clip on social media sites out of respect for [Ponder’s] family,” the agency wrote.

News organizations have been using edited copies of the audio file since it emerged over the weekend. Some have posted disclaimers online telling members of the public that while they sympathize with the Ponder’s family, using the audio was in the public interest and helped provide a fuller picture of what took place Sunday evening.

“We do have a journalistic duty…to report on these incidents and shed as much light as possible on even horrific events,” NBC affiliate WAVE-TV (Channel 3) wrote in an editor’s note online. “Clearly, the recording we’ve written about…sheds light on the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Trooper Ponder.”

WAVE-TV noted that the audio was previously made public “by law enforcement sources” on the Internet prior to their use on-air. The Kentucky State Police said it did not provide any media outlet with a copy of the audio.

“We have not endorsed or provided any media outlet or news station this audio clip to use,” the agency said. “KSP has been vigilant to contact news media who are allowing the audio clip to be played on their stations in an effort to protect the Ponder family from added pain during this already difficult time.”

A spokesperson with the Kentucky State Police did not return an inquiry from The Desk by press time.

By Thursday evening, the agency’s message had reached Rockford Scanner, who in a message to The Desk said they pulled the audio after receiving numerous e-mails about it.

“If we would have known that audio was going to cause controversy, we would have pulled it ASAP,” a Rockford Scanner editor said.  “The scanner audio was from Broadcastify, and someone sent it to us. We started to get emails in regards to it tonight. As soon as we did, we pulled it offline.”

Emergency dispatch audio is generally obtained by radio enthusiasts who scan the public airwaves for interesting transmissions. They are generally considered to be public records and are often asked for by journalists covering stories where such audio may shed additional light on an event. In rare cases, dispatch audio may be blocked from release due to various local and state statutes governing law enforcement records.

Kentucky has no statute exempting emergency dispatch audio from public disclosure.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).