Public records requests can often turn into frustrating back-and-forths between the requester and the almighty records custodian, and one defense mechanism is providing only some of the requested documents - but maybe just enough to make the requester go away.
MuckRock user Robert Galbraith made a pretty simple request of the Buffalo Police Department, asking for documents related to the police presence at a Donald Trump rally on April 18 in Buffalo:
“Records relating to training with FEMA or any other federal agency for handling mass demonstrations
Records relating to policing the political rally at the First Niagara Center on April 18, 2016, including:
Cost of police presence
Number of officers present
Any memoranda, reports, or briefs regarding the April 18th rally and/or potential protests
Any communications with Donald J Trump for President, Inc or any other organization affiliated with the Donald Trump campaign regarding the April 18th rally and/or potential protests”
Galbraith filed this request on April 19, and Buffalo PD responded the very next day, telling him to sit back and wait for 20 days, because the volume of requests pouring in was getting to be a bit much for them. Then, on May 11, Buffalo PD sent him this letter:
Which is nice, but, well, there was a bit more to that request.
Where are the records about FEMA training and the communications with Trump’s campaign? Galbraith patiently waited until July 6, before gently reminding Buffalo PD that they weren’t done filling his request, which Captain Mark Antonio responded to with a flat no.
“There are no other records pertaining to your request and we had no training by FEMA or any other federal agency.”
Galbraith then reminded Antonio that a Buffalo PD lieutenant had not only already confirmed that the department had worked with FEMA, he did so on TV.
“I don’t understand. Prior to the Trump rally, Lt. Jeff Rinaldo told WGRZ that BPD worked with FEMA “to develop new protest tactics.”
Last week, Lt. Thomas Whelan told WIVB that Buffalo Police, Erie County Sheriffs, Amherst Police, and other agencies participated in the FEMA Field Force Operations Course “through the Department of Homeland Secuity” over two weeks in September 2015.
The records related to this training are what I requested in April and what I am still asking for now.”
These facts apparently jogged his memory.
“To Whom IT May Concern: I stand corrected concerning alleged training with FEMA pertaining to Field Force Operations. Your request is denied per New York Public Officer’s Law, 87-2a,e iv. If you wish to appeal this decision, You can file your appeal to The Corporation Counsel, Buffalo City Hall, 65 Niagara Square, Buffalo, New York, 14202.”
With Captain Antonio corrected as hell, Galbraith filed an appeal on July 19, and was ignored until he followed up with an attorney for the City of Buffalo on Sept 16:
It has now been 45 business days since I filed my FOIL appeal. You are required by law to render a decision in 10. What is the reason for your delay and when can I expect a response?”
The reason for the delay remains a mystery, but the city responded by profusely apologizing for ignoring his request, and that he’d get records shortly.
A list of the dates of the department’s training was provided on Sept. 28, along with minimal details:
Again, nice, and again, still ignoring the part where Galbraith requested communications between Trump and the city.
Galbraith let the city’s attorney know on Oct. 7 that he still isn’t having any of this selectively responsive nonsense:
“It has now been 57 days days since I filed my appeal and I still have not received a decision from your office. I received a letter from Buffalo Police Department asserting certain facts about the training at issue in my FOIL request, but BPD has still not released any actual records responsive to my request.
If I do not receive the responsive records or a determination – in writing – from you on my appeal, I will be forced to file an Article 78 suit.”
(An Article 78 suit would allow for judicial review of Buffalo PD’s handling of this request.)
So, with a possible court case looming, we’ll end on this - agencies, if you really want a requestor to go away, the only surefire technique is to give them what they’re asking for.