Austin Mayor Steve Adler to give 2021 State of the City address

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Mayor Steve Adler addressed comments that the city doesn’t respect its police force and gave updates on the homelessness response in his annual State of the City address Monday afternoon. 

The comments stem from Austin City Council’s decision last year to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars out of Austin Police Department’s budget to other public health and safety efforts. 

“A piece of misinformation that I believe is particularly harmful and personally offensive, is the suggestion that the Austin City Council does not respect or support our police force. Associated with this misinformation is the claim that the Council defunded and took $150 Million or a third of the police budget away from the police functions to which it was being put. None of this is true,” Adler said in his address. 

Reforming policing

Adler says communities shouldn’t be relying on police officers to fix poverty or for support for those struggling with their mental health. He says we can support police, while trying to correct institutional racism and being critical of police actions toward protesters and people of color. 

“We can support our police officers while also being critical of the harm done to peaceful demonstrators at the George Floyd and Mike Ramos protests. We can admire the heroism of police officers while also disapproving of inappropriate police interactions on video,” he said. 

Austin City Council has made efforts to change or “reimagine” policing this year, starting with APD cadet classes. A new, revamped class launched in June, with a big focus on de-escalation, volunteering and community engagement, courses on race and policing in the city and inequalities in policing. 

Adler says a “comprehensive approach” to public safety will make the city safer, meaning analyzing the data, adapting to changing needs and looking at the combined efforts of Austin’s police force, firefighters, EMS and mental health providers. 

Adler says while Austin has seen more murders this year compared to last year, data shows Austin has the lowest homicide rate among the four biggest cities in Texas, and among the lowest compared to other big cities in the country.

“We are not dealing with a city that is unsafe but with those working hard to create the perception that we are unsafe,” Adler said.

He acknowledged APD is struggling with staffing issues but says this is a trend nationwide over the past year of increased police retirements and resignations. Adler says it’s misinformation that will divide us. 

“We will all be safer by reforming policing to 21st Century standards. But we are more unsafe if we are divided by misinformation,” Adler said. 

Ongoing mask battle between local and state officials

Earlier this month, Austin-Travis County implemented COVID-19 orders requiring masks in public schools and government buildings, as the area faces yet another surge in cases.

These orders were in direct defiance of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, which bans local governments from enacting mask mandates.

Abbott and the state have been fighting these local measures in court. Last week, a Travis County district judge granted a temporary injunction against his executive orders, but Abbott immediately filed a notice of appeal, which pauses the injunction, for now.

Abbott has been sticking to his philosophy of personal responsibility, saying Texans have learned by now which safety measures to take to lessen the spread of COVID-19. However, Adler said it’s not enough just to recommend masking, vaccines and social distancing. He says he will continue to fight to keep students safe. 

“It is so hard for me to understand how we can be facing such risks, know exactly what we need to do, and have our governor affirmatively trying to stop local school boards from doing what all the experts say is best to keep our children safe,” Adler said. 

Adler explained 90% of people in Austin area ICUs are unvaccinated. He says local hospitals are experiencing “dangerous” overcrowding right now. 

A few school systems in Central Texas have had to temporarily close classrooms or even shut down entire districts as school leaders try to navigate COVID-19 protocols and quarantining close contacts.

Homelessness response

Adler highlighted what the city has been doing recently to provide shelter for those living on the streets. He says since the beginning of the pandemic, city council has bought hotels in four districts and has strengthened ties with local organizations to create more than 600 homes for those exiting homelessness. 

Some hotels have been turned into transitional housing facilities for those experiencing homelessness, and two have opened this summer. 

Former hotel to be used to shelter encampment residents under HEAL initiative – called the Southbridge shelter. (KXAN/Kaitlyn Karmout)

Adler also says they are also continuously working to reach their goal of housing 3,000 homeless people in the next three years. He says these efforts “will take investment and time,” and they’re trying to create a permanent and integrated system. 

Adler also addressed Proposition B, or the recent reinstatement of the camping ban, which voters approved in May. The city entered Phase 4 of its enforcement of the ban earlier this month, which is when more citations and arrests can take place. 

He says we still have about 1,500 people sleeping on the streets each night, but everyone cannot be immediately housed right away. It’s an ongoing effort. 

A group called Save Austin Now recently filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming it is failing to enforce the ban.

Establishing equity in Austin

Adler says Austin’s Equity Office is working to review and implement new equity initiatives in city departments and spending. He says with the help of Black and brown activists and organizers, the city has taken steps toward addressing race-related, generational wealth disparities. 

“There is still much work to be done for Austin to truly be a fair and just city for everyone,” Adler said. “Nonetheless, we should still stop and take measure of all that is being done to achieve greater equity and on an accelerated schedule.”

He says they are working to preserve Black culture and history and to build a Black Embassy just east of Interstate 35.

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