Congressman Greg Walden

Representing the 2nd District of Oregon

OP-ED COLUMN: Giving law enforcement tools they need to help victims in an emergency

May 5, 2016
Op-Eds

OP-ED COLUMN: Giving law enforcement tools they need to help victims in an emergency

by Rep. Greg Walden

On December 1, 2013, Kari Rene Hunt was brutally murdered by her estranged husband in the bathroom of a motel room in Marshall, Texas. Her three children listened through the door as she was stabbed repeatedly. Kari screamed to her nine year old daughter to “call 9-1-1.” The girl did as instructed, frantically dialing 9-1-1 four times. But each time, she heard static on the other end of the line. What she didn’t know is that, because of the way the motel’s phone system was set up, she had to dial “9” first to reach an outside line. She told her grandfather later, “I tried, but it wouldn’t work, Papa.”

On June 2, 2007—just days after her high school graduation—Kelsey Smith went to a Target store in Kansas to buy a present for her boyfriend. She was abducted from the parking lot in broad daylight, and law enforcement began a massive search her. They were unsuccessful for four days until her cell phone’s location information was turned over to law enforcement. Kelsey’s body was then found in about 45 minutes.

The House Communications and Technology panel, which I chair, heard these stories recently from the parents of both the slain young women. No family should have to face situations like these. And they were made worse by a confusing patchwork of laws that govern telephone and communications systems in this country. If the laws were different at the time, is it possible that Kari Hunt and Kelsey Smith would be alive today? Perhaps. That’s why I’m helping to lead an effort in the U.S. Congress to pass two bills to ensure that law enforcement can help victims faster in an emergency situation, when time is precious.

One proposal, known as “Kari’s Law,” would require that all multi-line telephone systems, typically found in hotels, offices, and schools, be configured to reach 9-1-1 without any additionally prefix. After all, children are taught from a very young age to simply dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, not “9-9-1-1” or “7-9-1-1” or anything else. This fix would be both easy and inexpensive. Many hotels around the country have made progress addressing this problem, but we need a uniform, national standard to make sure what happened to Kari Hunt and her family never happens again. It’s been said that you may only dial 9-1-1 once in your life, but that time will be the most important call you ever make. We should make sure it’s as easy as possible so you can get the help you need when seconds count.

Another proposal, known as the “Kelsey Smith Act,” would give law enforcement the tools to locate victims in emergencies, using location data from their cell phone providers. By creating a narrow set of circumstances in which law enforcement can access this type of data, the bill seeks to protect the privacy of users while still allowing access for law enforcement when the situation demands it. The Kelsey Smith Act is already the law in 22 states, including right here in Oregon where it was approved by the legislature unanimously in 2014. The federal bill would take the Oregon standard and apply it nationwide. It’s just common sense.

Both these proposals were recently approved unanimously by the Communications and Technology panel I chair, as well as the full Energy and Commerce Committee. The next step is a vote in the full U.S. House of Representatives, which I hope will take action soon. These plans would save lives using existing technology and don’t cost taxpayers a dime. It’s time they become law so that what happened to the families of Kari Hunt and Kelsey Smith never happens to another American family again. 

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Greg Walden represents Oregon’s Second Congressional District, which covers 20 counties in southern, central, and eastern Oregon.