Office testifies to crackdown on homeless in tourist district FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 16 May 1999 13:15:34 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD   San Antonio Express-News   Saturday, May 15,1999

News: Crime & Crisis


By Maro Robbins
Express-News Staff Writer

    If anyone has reason to want the homeless driven from downtown San
Antonio, it's Police Officer Onofre Serna, who 11 years ago was shot by a
drifter while patrolling Navarro Street.

   Instead, Serna is an  unlikely champion of the homeless' rights to
quietly walk the streets and enjoy the benches.

   Serna is in federal court claiming his supervisor ordered patrols to
harras the homeless, teens and others deemed undesirable in the downtown
tourist and business district.

   The trial opened last week with testimony from Serna and eight other
past and present members of the Downtown Foot and Bicycle Patrol.

   Together, they claimed their supervisor told them to demand
identification from patrons in certain bars, to snatch suspected gang
paraphernalia from teens,  and to remove the homeless from the area -- with
or without probable cause suggesting laws were broken.

   Defending the city, police officials stated these alleged activities
violated no one's rights -- if they occured.

   They insisted that neither Serna nor any other officer documented abuses
nor used  official channels to protest their orders.

   The city's lawyer Mark Kosanovich suggested the officers' complaints
stemmed from "petty employment issues."

   Serna's lawsuit alleges his superiors transferred him because he
challenged the patrol's orders as harsh and illegal.

   That transfer, he claims, violated his civil rights and laws protecting
whistle-blowers. He's seeking at least $250,000 in damages.

   The trial is set to resume this week after a three-day break while U.S.
District Judge Edward C. Prado is out of town.

   Testifying last week, Serna said he initially thought the patrol was
doing the right thing by being tough on possible troublemakers.

   "Then, in actuality, I realized we were harassing people," he said.

   Serna struggled with his words and cried on the witness stand when he
recalled the shootings that fatally wounded his partner,  Officer Edwyn
Gorrell, and put a  bullet in his own chest.

   On Feb. 22, 1988, the patrolling officers woke drifter David Johnson in
an alley near the St. Anthony Hotel.

   Johnson, originally from Florida, grappled with Gorrell. During the
scuffle, Gorrell's service revolver went off. Johnson then shot Serna and

   Serna said he remained on the ground with a slug in his chest and his
unconscious partner in his arms.

   Gorrell slipped into a coma and died five months later. Johnson was
arrested and got two life prison sentences. Months passed before Serna
returned to his downtown post.

   Serna's transfer came years later, the result of a inquiry into
complaints coming from the downtown patrol.

   After interviewing members of the squad, the panel issued a report
labelling Serna "very disruptive" and the supervisor, then-Lt. Harry
Griffin, as having "serious  managerial and supervisory shortcomings."

   Both were transferred, with  two seargeants. Transfers for three
officers already temporarily reassigned from the bicycle patrol became

   The report also noted that a "clique" of officers considered Griffin's
orders "heavy-handed, illegal or racially and politically motivated."

   In court, Serna attorney Bruce Mery spent considerable time asking
police officials why they never asked investigators to learn  if the
allegations were true.

   Deputy Chief Richard Gleinser was last to testify Friday. His
explanation essentially echoed Philippus' testimony from earlier in the

   "I do not react to rumors, innuendos and second-hand information,"
Gleinser said, adding later, "I have 1,100 people under me. I don't have
time to investigate everything unless someone puts it in writing and sends
it to me."


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