Cops testify they were ordered to harass homeless in San Antonio,

Tom Boland (
Sat, 15 May 1999 19:31:30 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  San Antonio Express-News  Thursday, May 13,1999

     Crime & Crisis


     By Maro Robbins
     Express-News Staff Writer

   In a trial unfolding this week in federal court, several police officers
have testified they were ordered to keep downtown streets tourist-friendly
by harassing human "eyesores" that included youths and the homeless.

   Past and present members of the Downtown Foot and Bicycle Patrol said
they were told to demand identification from patrons in certain bars, to
snatch suspected gang clothing from teen-agers and to push homeless people
out of the area -- with or without probable cause that suggested laws had
been broken.

   Testifying Thursday, San Antonio Police Chief Al Philippus said none of
the alleged activities violated residents' rights to walk the streets
downtown  —  if they in fact occurred.

   He emphasized that officers never documented specific abuses and never
complained through official channels.

   He also noted that probable cause is not needed for officers to request

   Altogether, nine officers have testified in a trial brought against the
city by Officer Onofre Serna, who in 1996 was transferred from the highly
visible bicycle patrol to squad-car duty.

   Serna claims the transfer was punishment for complaining about the
unit's harsh methods, which allegedly started in 1994 and lasted about two
years. He also claims the transfer violated his civil rights and laws
protecting whistleblowers.

   Lawyers for the city said Serna suffered no retaliation. They suggest
the allegations stem from personality conflicts and "petty employment

   The trial has offered a rare view inside the squad room where officers
navigated the politics of policing one of the city's most valued assets --
the River Walk.

   Bandannas, baseball caps and other pieces of suspected gang regalia
decorated the walls of the patrol's office, several officers said. A box in
a back room held more confiscated items, some, according to testimony,
snatched without probable cause.

   "It's basically theft," Detective Miguel Mares Jr., a former member of
the patrol, said on the witness stand, describing why he -- and other
officers -- balked at instructions to take suspected gang paraphernalia.

   Most officers acknowledged the downtown streets had gang problems. But,
they said, their orders also targeted teen-agers who broke no laws but wore
gangster-style clothing simply to blend in with peers.

   Moreover, they said, many youths lingered downtown to avoid trouble in
their own rough neighborhoods.

   "Even if they were just standing around, we were instructed to do
something about this problem," Mares said.

   Mares also said the patrol had specific instructions to demand
identification from customers in certain bars, such as the Esquire Tavern
at 115 E. Commerce St. Other officers said they were advised to let
bouncers and hired security handle upscale establishments like the nearby
Hard Rock Cafe.

   Without naming any businesses, Philippus argued the department simply
focused on unruly areas and certain crimes, like driving while intoxicated.

   "We target problems, specific violations of law, not particular (groups
of) people," he said.

   Officers claimed the heavy-handed orders came from the patrol
supervisor, then-Lt. Harry Griffin.

   Griffin, now a captain at the Prue Road substation, also was transferred
from the patrol about the same time as Serna. He has been named as a
potential witness, but he couldn't be reached for comment.

   Officer Thomas Froelick said Griffin considered the teen-agers as
"eyesores," and wanted them off the downtown streets.

   "The homeless in San Antonio -- he didn't like them, either," Froelick

   Mares said Griffin once ordered him to remove a mentally disabled
homeless woman from the bench where she had sat quietly for years without
causing many complaints. He was told to drop her off under a bridge by a
homeless shelter.

   On the witness stand, Philippus said he wanted to hear Griffin's
testimony before he assessed the incident, but balked at labeling the
woman's removal an arrest.

   In July 1996, Philippus assembled a panel of police supervisors to
examine the grumbling coming from the downtown patrol squad.

   After dozens of interviews, the panel reported that a clique of officers
was defying supervisors and intimidating peers. It described Serna as "very
disruptive," while acknowledging that Griffin had "serious managerial and
supervisory shortcomings."

   The report also stated the officers believed the tactics Griffin
demanded "were heavy-handed, illegal or racially and politically motivated."

   Philippus said those allegations were too vague to warrant an inquiry
into whether the patrol was harassing downtown visitors.

   Instead, Philippus said he followed the panel's recommendations. He
transferred Griffin, Serna and two sergeants. Transfers of three other
patrol officers already temporarily assigned to other divisions became

   Since then, both Philippus and Froelick testified, the unit's troubles
have dissipated.


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