Homeless Harassment SUIT: Whistle-Blowing Cop Awarded $500,000

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 16 Jun 1999 21:39:19 -0700 (PDT)


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FWD  1999/06/05 via austin.general [Texas, USA]

     OFFICER WINS BIG IN HARASSMENT SUIT

     Federal jury finds San Antonio police
     policy targeted downtown homeless

     By THADDEUS HERRICK
     Houston Chronicle - San Antonio Bureau

SAN ANTONIO -- On the legendary Alamo Plaza, under the shade of the leafy
live oaks, tourists abound.

But look closer and there are others: bearded men pushing shopping carts,
barrio kids dressed as gangsters and tattooed punk drifters with
safety-pinned eyebrows.

It was this often unseemly lot that Onofre Serna, a veteran San Antonio
police officer, says he was ordered to harass in hopes of driving away. And
it was this order that led Serna to challenge the San Antonio Police
Department in federal court, arguing that his objections to the harassment
policy led to retaliation against him.

Last week, a jury awarded Serna $500,000, convinced by him and several
other officers that the police department did order its foot and bike
patrol to cleanse the downtown area in the interest of tourism.

"San Antonio police officers were ordered to selectively enforce the law,"
said Serna's lawyer, Bruce Mery. "Officer Serna stood up and said, `Wait a
minute, this is not right.' " Though the judgment was not even half the
$1.2 million Serna sought, it comes as a  major blow to the police
department. More important, perhaps, it highlights the difficult balance
the city must strike in sustaining its No. 2 industry, worth more than $3.5
billion in annual economic impact, and lending a helping hand.

But the ruling against San Antonio also represents a huge victory for a
rank-and-file cop who seems to have been motivated by little more than his
convictions. Not until Serna was transferred from the foot and bike squad
to the overnight patrol, or "dog watch," did he file suit.

Making Serna an even more unlikely champion of the homeless is this: He was
shot in the chest by a drifter 11 years ago in an alley near San Antonio's
St. Anthony Hotel, an incident in which his partner was killed.

Serna, 38, testified that at first he believed the foot and bike patrol was
doing the right thing with potential troublemakers, demanding
identification from patrons in certain bars, snatching caps and bandannas
from suspected gang members and forcing the homeless from downtown.

But then, said Serna, who joined the force in 1984, "I realized we were
harassing people."

The city of San Antonio denies the police issued orders to rid downtown of
the homeless or any other group. Nor, the police department says, did it
retaliate against Serna after he lodged his protest in the summer of 1995.
An appeal is under way. "We feel there was no retaliation or violation of
any rights of Officer Serna and believe there is no evidence to support
this verdict," said Police Chief Al Philippus.

Serna declines to discuss the case, citing his need to restore his
relationship with the police department. But his surprising victory has
given hope to two other officers who are challenging the city on the same
grounds.

The policing issue is a dicey one for San Antonio, which is not believed to
have a homeless problem as serious as cities such as Austin or San
Francisco. Still, nearly 8 million tourists visited San Antonio in 1997,
making the tourism industry second only to the military.

But just how to deal with drifters, the homeless and others who may
discourage downtown tourism is a vexing question. While the city says it
encourages a progressive, preventive approach to law enforcement, critics
say the police continue to harass.

"The attitude among the police officers is that you can do anything you've
got the guts to do," said Mery. "You can get in their faces, jack 'em up,
move 'em out."

More troubling still, Serna contends in an affidavit that the police
targeted Hispanics, stating that his former supervisor, Lt. Harry Griffin,
told his officers, "If you see these Mexicans hanging around downtown
drinking, give them a ticket."

The kids who hang around Alamo Plaza say the police harass almost anyone
who appears threatening. Rain McGregor, a 22-year-old with green hair,
military fatigues and combat boots, says he has been ticketed for
jaywalking when crossing the street with tourists, whom the police ignore.

"It doesn't matter who you are," said McGregor, who says he is homeless.
"What matters is what you look like."

More than nine police officers testified on Serna's behalf, arguing that
between 1994 and 1996 they were ordered to crack down on the homeless and
assorted groups of kids. But almost as many officers testified for the
city.

Even Rudy Garza, a homeless man in downtown San Antonio, vouched for the
cops. "They never bother me or tell me anything," he said. "They're out to
protect us."

James Flores, a veteran officer with the downtown foot and bike patrol,
says the squad may have seized a bandanna or two or moved a drunk from a
merchant's doorway but that the police have helped make downtown a safer
place for pedestrians.

"We're proud of what we do," Flores said. "But all of a sudden, we're
getting dragged through the mud."

Griffin, the supervisor, was transferred after an internal report revealed
that he had management shortcomings. But because the Serna case focused
more on the question of retaliation than law enforcement policy, the debate
over the harassment Griffin allegedly ordered may never be resolved.

Nor is there likely to be agreement over whether the police currently
harass the homeless, drifters and the barrio kids who hang out downtown.

But Mery, Serna's lawyer, is adamant. "It may be more discreet," he said,
"but it's there."

END FORWARD

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