Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday ordered the Department of Public Safety to increase patrols in downtown Austin and around the University of Texas starting Monday, in the wake of two recent stabbings involving people who are homeless.
In a letter to DPS Director Steve McCraw, Abbott asked for patrols “within two blocks of any state building in Austin, including the Capitol Complex and the UT campus, and strictly enforce all state and local laws.”
Abbott cited in his letter the fatal stabbing that happened Friday in Austin, south of downtown. Dylan Woodburn, 27, allegedly attacked two workers in a Freebirds World Burrito restaurant, killing 34-year-old Johnathan Aguilar. The governor also listed other violent incidents, including a fight Wednesday morning between two people experiencing homelessness in downtown Austin, which ended up with both parties seriously injured.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who recently accused Abbott of demonizing homeless people, asked the governor to fund better services for the vulnerable.
"Austin remains one of the safest big cities in the country,” Adler said in a statement. “The Governor could really help Austin and other Texas cities by helping provide mental health clinics, substance abuse treatment and housing. The Governor of California took such steps just today by seeking $1 billion to help his cities."
Abbott stressed in his letter that patrolling the streets of Austin is not a state responsibility.
"The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) is not charged with the duty to police the streets of Austin—that is the City of Austin’s responsibility. However, the State of Texas must do all it can to protect the safety of all its residents and visitors," he wrote.
A DPS spokesman would not provide specifics but confirmed that Austin residents would see an increased officer presence no later than Monday.
"DPS will increase our visibility around downtown Austin and the University of Texas to enhance safety in these areas," the agency said in an email.
This is the latest salvo in the battle between Abbott and the city of Austin. In June, the Austin City Council rolled back three ordinances that had prohibited camping, sitting and lying in public spaces inside city limits. It modified the policies again in October to reinstate the ban on camping but limited it to city sidewalks and areas that are near homeless shelters or at high risk of wildfires. Abbott has become the leading voice of criticism, repeatedly complaining that the relaxed policy is making Austin unsafe.
According to the 2019 annual count, the Austin area has the fourth-largest homeless population in the state. Dallas, the area with the largest population, has twice as many people experiencing homelessness — 4,538. But the count also shows that 48% of Austin’s homeless population is unsheltered — proportionally more than any of the state's largest urban areas.
Individuals who experience homelessness in the capital have said they are used to being blamed for violence and other crimes — and that it is unfair.
Last week, after the stabbing at the restaurant, the executive director of Austin ECHO, the lead agency that plans and implements strategies to end homelessness in Travis County, asked Abbott to focus on the victims.
“This is obviously very tragic, but the governor’s comments are reckless, taking away from the trauma not only from the victims but the witnesses that were there,” said Matthew Mollica. “What we are seeing here, with the governor weaponizing instances like this and trying to stoke the fire with propaganda around homelessness, is unfortunate.”
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former board member of The Texas Tribune, has also been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.