Cop awarded $500,000 blew whistle on orders to harrass homeless

Tom Boland (
Sat, 29 May 1999 23:21:53 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  [Texas, USA] San Antonio Express-News  27 May 1999

     "Crime & Crisis"


     By Maro Robbins
     Express-News Staff Writer

In a bruising defeat for the Police Department, jurors awarded a
half-million dollars Wednesday to an officer who claimed his patrol unit
was told to harass surly looking teen-agers and soiled derelicts lingering
around San Antonio's downtown tourist areas.

   After some eight hours of deliberations, seven jurors found Police
Department officials retaliated against Officer Onofre Serna after he
protested the heavy-handed tactics that the Downtown Foot and Bicycle
Patrol was encouraged to use in 1995.

   Serna was transferred to overnight squad-car duty in 1996 after an
internal inquiry into the downtown unit labeled him "disruptive."

   At the end of the nine-day trial, Serna sat subdued as U.S. District
Judge Edward C. Prado read aloud the verdict  --  which totaled less than
half the compensation and damages the police officer had requested.

   Once court adjourned, Serna said the $500,000 award was unimportant
compared with spotlighting any abuses taking place downtown.

   "I believe it's still going on right now, to this day," he said. "I
believe it has a long way to go before it changes."

   Officers on both sides, however, testified that the department's
problems downtown dissipated with the transfer of Serna, two other
officers, a sergeant and a lieutenant.

   After the verdict, Police Chief Al Philippus said the city may appeal
the verdict.

   Philippus insisted, as he did on the witness stand, that the department
never targeted anyone based on income, race or any other category.

   "We target problems," he said.

   Jurors found that Philippus  —  who was named as a separate
defendant  —  didn't maliciously single out Serna when he approved a
recommendation to transfer the five officers and supervisors.

   Two other officers who were transferred then have filed similar lawsuits
against the city. One is slated for trial next month.

   Because the jury's verdict focused on Serna's retaliation, it did little
to answer clearly the question that dominated testimony:

   Were officers told to snatch bandannas and other gang-related regalia,
to demand identification from patrons in certain bars, and to drive
homeless from the heart of San Antonio  —  with or without provocation?

   Early in the trial, eight officers asserted that the patrol supervisor
encouraged illegal searches and seizures and other heavy-handed methods
aimed at keeping downtown tourist-friendly.

   In turn, eight other officers said the complaints originated from
disgruntled officers who resented their strong-willed supervisor and
twisted his words against him.

   The supervisor, Capt. Harry Griffin, eventually took the stand to defend
his leadership of the squad, which ended when an internal inquiry found the
then-lieutenant had "serious supervisory shortcomings." Griffin was
transferred alongside Serna.

   Griffin said he never wanted local teen-agers and homeless drifters
treated differently from tourists and business people. Nor did he encourage
officers to violate rights.

   Griffin said he preached the popular "broken windows" law-enforcement
theory that encourages officers to deter serious crime by stopping minor
infractions, such as jaywalking.

   That theory calls for stopping unruly behavior before it escalates to
serious crime, the same way that untended broken windows lead to more
severe deterioration of a building.

   When gang members brazenly block sidewalks and drunken panhandlers
pester passers-by, "people start to think their neighborhood is starting to
decay," Griffin said. "And I don't think our community wanted that to
happen downtown."

   In closing arguments, the city's attorney, Deborah Lynn Klein, told
jurors that officers who testified generally about misconduct offered few
specific examples of abuse.

   "Rumors, innuendo, smokescreens," Klein said, "that's what you've been
listening to for nine days."

   Serna attorney Bruce Mery said vital civil liberties were at stake.

   "When has the freedom to walk the streets of San Antonio become an issue
you can call a petty squabble?" he asked jurors.

   Jurors seemed to agree.

   In a brief discussion with the city's attorneys after court adjourned,
some jurors said they were concerned that department officials had no way
of verifying or disproving the allegations of misconduct.

   Instead, the department's leaders transferred both Griffin and Serna
without sorting out whose complaint was legitimate.

   "That 'broken window' theory, they should apply that internally," a
juror told the attorneys.

   "They ended up with a wall of broken windows here, and they didn't fix it."


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