Houston's Own Professor Gates Incident, Except With Homeless People

It is not against the law to feed the homeless. Nor does this require a permit.

Deputy T. McGilbray of the Harris County Sheriff's Office was apparently unaware of this during his patrol on July 19, when he interrupted a local church group's weekly Sunday afternoon homeless outreach in James Bute Park, demanded a "permit to serve food in the park," and then handcuffed and detained one homeless man and one church volunteer who questioned what he was doing.

Tom Berna was in the park, which is often crowded with the homeless, with about ten other members of Ecclesia Church when the officer approached.

"He said we're not allowed to feed homeless people," Berna says.

One of the homeless men nearby, identified in McGilbray's report as Bennie Sorrels, asked the officer which ordinance was being violated, according to Berna and other church members. They say the officer refused to answer and, after being asked a few more times, put the man in the back of his car and began searching his belongings.

(In his report, McGilbray calls Sorrels "belligerent" and says he was detained for refusing to leave the park when asked.)

Berna began snapping pictures of the scene with his iPhone. At this, the officer demanded Berna's identification. Berna asked whether this was required (it's not), but McGilbray was again evasive. After several such exchanges, Berna too was detained and placed in the car.

Angry church members eventually requested McGilbray's supervisor, who sent the deputy away. Sorrels wasn't charged in the incident, and the assistant district attorney refused to acknowledge Berna's oddly phrased citation for "fail to identify to a peace officer."

McGilbray has a reputation as an intimidator among most of the homeless in the park, according to Berna and Ecclesia member Michael Anthony Guerrie, who was also on hand.

"Everyone at my table had mentioned that this officer didn't like anyone -- black, white, or anything in between," Guerrie says.

Anthony Love, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, calls the officer's response "extreme." The sheriff's department seems to agree. Berna says he called to complain and spoke with a very sympathetic lieutenant who encouraged the church to continue its outreach and praised its good will.

McGilbray was verbally reprimanded and reassigned, according to HCSO spokeswoman Christina Garza, who also notes that someone is only required to provide identification when under arrest.

"Deputy McGilbray just used bad judgment," she says.

Berna says he's happy with the department's response and just wants to be sure its officers will be more sensitive in the future.

"[They need] to make sure there's no more harassment of the homeless," he says. "In my opinion, an officer of the law going out there and breaking the law is no small matter at all."

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