March 26, 2019
FOIL AO 19719


Subject:                 City of Rochester FOIL request

Dear :

I have received your correspondence concerning the rejection of a request for records by the City of Rochester. You wrote that the request involves "criteria (including training manuals and administrative manuals) used to determine when a responding law enforcement officer should specify the incident on the report as noncriminal or criminal", as well as the criteria found in manuals used "to determine when a responding officer should indicate on the report the person as a victim or a reporting person."

In the initial response to the request, you were referred to the Rochester Police Department's Open Data Portal, which "houses RPD training manuals, department policies, and other administrative materials."  However, the records available through the portal are voluminous, and apparently you and colleagues were unable to locate the specific material sought. When you appealed, you were informed that your request is "unreasonably described", and that "Whether a request is reasonably described is dependent on the City’s filing system, not the amount of detail in your request", and that "What you are requesting would not be found in one specific training manual or policy document, but in a culmination of policies and training manuals that are organized across different subjects." In the conclusion of the determination of your appeal, it was stated that "the City’s filing system is not organized in a way that makes it reasonable for the City to search for the policies that may contain the criteria you seek."

It appears that both you and your colleagues and attorneys for the City of Rochester are familiar with the requirement in the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) that an applicant must "reasonably describe" the records of interest and the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals in Konigsberg v. Coughlin, 68 NY2d 245 (1986). In my view, the decision stands for two essential principles. First, insofar as an agency can locate and identify records with reasonable effort, a request would meet the standard that it must reasonably describe the records sought. Second, the Court suggested that whether or the extent to which a request meets that standard may be dependent on the nature of an agency's filing, indexing or retrieval systems. It has been advise that an agency need not search through the haystack in an effort to find the needles, even if is known that the needles are there, somewhere.

I would conjecture that some staff at the Police Department are familiar with its Open Data Portal and can navigate in a manner that enables those persons and, therefore, when necessary, other Department employees to locate particular items of information, policies and procedures. It is assumed that you have seen Department incident reports and that those reports include entries indicating that an event is "noncriminal or criminal" and that distinguish between a person "as a victim or as a reporting person." If those assumptions are accurate (and I am unaware of whether they are), and if responding officers can locate entries available through portal in carrying out their duties and complying with Department directives, it would seem that the items of your interest can be found and retrieved with reasonable effort. If that is so or if so that extent, I believe that your request would reasonably describe the records sought.

Robert J. Freeman
Executive Director
Committee on Open Government
Department of State
One Commerce Plaza
99 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12231