Austin’s police chief is the latest to urge Mayor Steve Adler to reverse a recent controversial law that has caused an alarming public safety risk.
At a press conference Thursday, Police Chief Brian Manley outlined new guidelines for police enforcement under Adler’s recent homeless camping law and said he has spoken with the mayor about completely overturning the law for the sake of Austinites’ safety.
“Since these ordinances went into effect, I have had conversations with the mayor; and although it doesn’t necessarily meet the political will of our mayor and council right now, as the police chief charged with maintaining public safety, I have suggested that we put the old ordinances back in place while we work through a final solution,” said Manley.
At issue is a law passed in June by Mayor Adler and the city council that allows homeless people to camp, sit, and lie down in public spaces across the city (but not outside city hall). Since then, Austinites have witnessed a predictable outbreak of campsites and tent cities on sidewalks and streets, and underneath overpasses.
The new law has also caused a public health and safety risk, prompting over 34,000 citizens to sign a petition calling for its reversal. The public backlash only intensified over the summer as the University of Texas police chief wrote the mayor an open letter urging him to reverse the decision for the sake of students’ security, and citizens packed numerous townhalls testifying to the harmful consequences of the law.
“[My daughter] lives in a first-floor apartment … and there are currently 100 registered sex offenders listed as transient and living on the streets of Austin,” citizen Susan Albertson told the council. “Because you’ve allowed them to sleep anywhere, they can now sleep 100 feet from my daughter’s bedroom window and front door.”
“I’m here to tell you that I have seen lewd acts, illegal acts, men expose themselves, drug deals go down, and drug paraphernalia on the street adjacent to Joslin Elementary,” said citizen Celeste Wiley. “We need to protect our children.”
After a tumultuous three months of alarming safety risk and public anger—and after the city council returned from their five-week vacation—they met in September, supposedly prepared to finally make changes to the law; however, the council ended up taking no action, postponing even a discussion on the matter until mid-October.
After September’s council meeting, Mayor Adler posted a statement on Twitter dodging blame for the situation and telling the city manager to do something about the law. Adler recommended various ways the manager could “act on his own” to fix the situation, including giving police officers 4-foot tape measures or strings to enforce clear passage next to sidewalk campsites, rather than cleaning up the sidewalk itself.
“Austin police officers are not going to carry tape measures and strings to measure distances,” replied Chief Manley on Thursday. “We’re not going to worry about 3 feet, 4 feet … we are going to define blocking as impeding others’ ability to use what is meant to be a public thoroughfare.”
“I have suggested that we make all sidewalks in the downtown area a place where camping and obstructing is prohibited,” Manley continued. “So we’ve made these recommendations knowing that they did not necessarily meet the direction that mayor and council were going; but again, charged with public safety, [those are] the recommendations that we’ve made.”
Manley joins the UT police chief and two other prominent officials urging council action. Just this week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, who represents much of downtown Austin, also penned open letters to Adler calling for the new homeless camping law to be overturned.
“The ordinance is a lazy approach to dealing with homeless individuals in our community,” Roy wrote. “The new ordinance undermines security, harms private property of our citizens, hurts commerce, and endangers those it purports to help—the homeless.”
Gov. Abbott’s letter, however, told the mayor that if he did not take responsibility to improve the safety of Austinites in the next 30 days, the state would need to step in to protect the public.
“Further inaction by you and the Austin City Council will leave me no choice other than to use the tools available to the State of Texas to ensure that people are protected from health and safety concerns caused by the Austin homeless policies,” Abbott said.
Adler and the city council are expected to resume discussion on the situation in the next few weeks.