Criminal JusticeLocal NewsPolice, Pandemic, and Public Safety: Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s ‘Disruptive’ Tenure Comes to an End

Adler made himself a political lightning rod during his time as mayor, describing the tenure as "disruptive."
January 9, 2023
A midday snooze summed up the tumultuous relationship between Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the rank and file police officers who patrol Texas’ capital city.

On October 3, Adler fell asleep at a memorial service for Austin police officer Tony Martin, who was killed in a vehicle crash on September 23. The mayor later apologized, but the damage was already done; the relationship was well beyond repair.

In his outgoing State of the City address, Adler touted his “disruptive” tenure — an adjective both Adler’s allies and rivals would pin on him.

It is perhaps the only thing both sides agreed on during the mayor’s eight-year tenure.

The “Disruption”

Adler’s tenure began as an eminent domain attorney running on a pro-business and pro-road expansion platform. It ends with a $10.3 billion-and-growing light rail expansion plan — one that now costs $3 billion more than when first passed in 2020 — that is among Adler’s top self-identified accomplishments. During his time in office, voters have approved $2.1 billion in mobility bonds on top of the light rail Project Connect plan.

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When I took over, the number one priority was mobility. And now we live in the city’s golden age of mobility,” he said during the August speech.

Voters approved partial funding for Project Connect in 2020, amounting to a 25 percent hike in the city tax rate with officials banking on federal dollars to cover the rest. Other levies have been approved for sidewalk and bike lane expansions.

But transportation — building and reshaping the infrastructure, along with obtaining the financing — is a very long-term endeavor.

Adler rode in on a formational change in Austin’s city government structure; 2014 was the first year that the council was siphoned into single-member districts as opposed to at-large positions.

That same year Adler won, a young self-described democratic socialist and community activist joined the council. Greg Casar, then the executive director of the Workers Defense Project, defeated Laura Pressley and began a seismic political climb that has now landed him in the U.S. Congress.

The councilman and mayor would ally on a number of momentous policy changes, most acutely related to public safety — a trend that really picked up after the 2016 election.

In 2017, the council made two decisions that set the tone for the rest of Adler’s tenure.

The first — goaded by “reimagine policing” activists — was torpedoing the Austin police labor contract and settling on a new one that replaced the Office of the Police Monitor with the more authoritative Office of Police Oversight (OPO).

The second, which has largely flown under the radar, entailed the passage of an ordinance directing the municipal court to prioritize personal bond for defendants deemed “indigent.” The policy was authored by then-Councilman Jimmy Flannigan — now president of the Austin Convention Center Enterprise, after losing to Mackenzie Kelly in 2020 — who had unseated Republican Don Zimmerman in District 6. Part and parcel to that, the council removed the court of judges who objected to the policy.

Since that policy, Austin Municipal Court judges have let out numerous defendants on personal bond who’ve then gone on to kill or maim others; Nathan Nevah Ramirez, who killed one and paralyzed another in an August 6, 2022 shooting, was out of jail on personal bonds in two counties, including from Austin Municipal Court Judge Stephen Vigorito.

The indigence priority foreshadowed the city’s next momentous policy, one that would bring with it the national spotlight.

In the months following 2018’s Beto O’Rourke-driven “Blue Wave” in Texas, the state’s bluest city cannonballed into the deep end of progressive policy.

The council, spearheaded by Casar with Adler in support, rescinded its homeless camping and laying restrictions, exempting only certain areas — including city hall. The experiment in unregulated camping that followed created an environment in which businesses didn’t want to operate after dark, tourists were advised to stay away and avoid walking downtown, and the city’s creek beds and underpasses became worn with tents and trash.

The ban has since been reinstated but the problem still lingers in more hidden fashion and the Adler-led government had its sights set on half-a-billion in homeless spending that includes purchasing and renovating motels to provide housing for the homeless.

Homelessness provided the most significant political recoil of Adler’s tenure. Voters elected to reinstate the ban two years later by a 3:2 ratio and gave Save Austin Now, now-frequent political opponents of Adler’s who formed to oppose the camping policy, a foundational win. The Texas Legislature followed with its own statewide camping ban.

I think that election helped us as a city get in a position where we can end homelessness,” Adler said in his State of the City speech. “So that election, I think, on balance helped our city advance.”

But Adler, Casar, and the majority of the city council would not let their foot off the gas pedal.

Viral Moments

Like the rest of the country in 2020, public officials in Texas found themselves in an unforeseen situation. The COVID-19 pandemic threw a massive wrench into the city’s economic and societal engines. Officials across the board would issue shutdown orders; Adler’s cancellation of arts festival South by Southwest was a harbinger of things to come. A week later, the state, and most of the rest of the country, was under lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, Austin would levy strict business closures and mask mandates; an early mask order explicitly exempted the homeless.

Adler held daily videoconferences discussing the COVID-19 trends in Austin, one of which landed him in hot water.

Late in 2020, Adler advised Austinites to shelter in place as a coronavirus wave began to develop that winter. It later became clear that those directions were spoken by Adler from Cabo, Mexico, where the mayor was visiting for his daughter’s wedding.

The public relations debacle was entirely self-inflicted and Adler later apologized for it. He remained hawkish on COVID-19 and touted Austin’s mitigating efforts for its consistently low hospitalization and mortality rate. Adler’s often stated that the State of Texas should’ve imitated Austin’s pandemic measures; to-date, Texas’ COVID-19 mortality rate is 0.31 percent.

But a different crisis put the coronavirus on the backburner for a time. Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, cities around the country were fraught with protests-turned-riots.

Austin was rocked with mass protests that morphed into riots and looting at night. One of the days, a mass of protesters overtook the I-35 overpass, blocking traffic entirely and triggering a showdown with police officers responding in riot gear. Bottles of urine and other projectiles were hurled at police, who returned fire with less-lethal beanbag rounds — some of which turned out to be defective, causing serious injuries. Nearly 20 officers now face indictment sought by Travis County District Attorney José Garza for firing those rounds.

Adler reacted to that news, saying, “Something went wrong here because no one should be injured merely exercising their constitutional rights.”

The entire spectacle accentuated chaos and downplayed order.

In the aftermath, Adler hosted Chas Moore — one of the main “reimagine policing” activists in Austin, who led the public opposition to the 2017 police contract — for a Facebook Live in which the activist stated, “I’m not here to condone what was going on, but I’m also not here to knock it.” Moore later tempered that stance.

Floyd’s murder and the visible public outcry gave enough juice for the activists, Casar, and Adler to push forward a $150 million budget cut and redirection for Austin’s police.

Already bleeding from attrition issues, the move reduced the Austin Police Department’s authorized staffing level by 150.

It would spark another clash at the ballot box between Adler and Save Austin Now, one the mayor would this time win. But even more so, the move disintegrated the mayor’s reputation among rank-and-file police officers.

In the years following, the city’s then-OPO Director Farah Muscadin grappled with APD, trying to wrangle more authority over police conduct investigations than allowed under the current contract. At the behest of city officials, including Adler, her office helped organize systemic racism trainings for police officers.

The Times, They Are a-Changin’

Currently, the city and APD are embroiled in negotiations over a new contract, debating OPO and its role going forward. While that occurs, multiple specialized units within the department have been disbanded and subsumed back into regular patrol. Additionally, Austin voters will consider a proposition to expand the OPO’s powers further — a petition Adler didn’t full-throatedly support, for which he received derision from one of the “reimagine” activists.

Murders in Austin increased 87 percent in 2021 to 88 victims; 2022 eclipsed 70 victims. Austin is historically a low-crime city, but the trend has been clear. Traffic fatalities have also increased 10 percent this year, and the 2023 homeless population is expected to be drastically higher than its 2020 estimate after two years of survey cancellations due to COVID-19.

While this has played out, the costs of living in Austin have sharply risen. Home appraisal values increased an average of 56 percent in Travis County this year; the median Travis County home value is $632,208. The Austin metropolitan area’s population is booming and the city is gripped in a prolonged zoning fight; housing affordability was top of mind during the campaign to succeed Adler. It will remain a top issue for Mayor Kirk Watson as he succeeds Adler, just as it was the last time Watson occupied the mayoral office.

One of Adler’s final feats placed on the November 2022 ballot a $350 million housing bond election — which passed overwhelmingly — along with approving a 40 percent council pay raise.

As he leaves office, housing will continue to be on Adler’s plate; he will serve on the board of a Zillow subsidiary timeshare company whose business model is to purchase single-family homes and sell them off as investments or vacation homes. Adler says the position is unpaid.

Back in August, Adler’s chief of staff described him as the most progressive mayor in Texas, a moniker the mayor has embraced. That embrace shifted Adler from a business and roads-focused official to one whose focus on systemic racism and the “reimagination” of policing trumped most else.

During his tenure, public safety setbacks were frequent and his deteriorating relationship with police clear as day.

No instance is more illustrative of that than the funeral nap — accidental or not.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.