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‘Jordan Neely did not deserve to die’: Eric Adams addresses death of homeless New Yorker after fatal chokehold

The New York City mayor outlines policies to support people in mental health crises, but does not discuss how the 30-year-old man died on the floor of a Manhattan F train

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 10 May 2023 18:57 BST
New York mayor Eric Adams says 'Jordan Neely did not deserve to die'

In his first official remarks on the death of Jordan Neely more than one week after he was fatally choked on a New York City subway train car, Mayor Eric Adams did not mention how the homeless New Yorker died or discuss the events surrounding his death.

He stressed, however, that “Jordan Neely did not deserve to die.”

“One of our own is dead – a Black man, Black like me. A man named Jordan, the name I gave my son,” the mayor said in remarks on 10 May. “A New Yorker who struggled with tragedy, trauma and mental illness, a man whose last words were crying for help.”

On 1 May, a man identified as 24-year-old Daniel Penny wrapped his arm around the neck of the homeless former street performer for several minutes. The city’s medical examiner determined the cause of death was homicide. No charges have been filed, and the Manhattan district attorney’s office and police are investigating.

Neely was complaining of hunger and thirst when he boarded the F train in Manhattan, according to witnesses, moments before Mr Penny and others pinned him to the ground.

Neely’s death has “devastated his family and shocked his fellow New Yorkers,” said Mr Adams, adding that “one thing we can control is how our city responds to that tragedy.”

Mr Adams outlined his administration’s response to people experiencing homelessness and mental health distress, including legislation proposed to lawmakers in Albany, the creation of outreach teams, and a controversial policy that allows authorities to involuntarily hospitalise people who are considered too mentally ill to care for themselves.

Neely – who was experiencing a mental health crisis in the days leading up to his death – was known among social work teams involved in outreach to New York’s homeless community. He had numerous interactions with law enforcement and health responders over the years.

When he walked into a subway car on 1 May, Neely complained of hunger and thirst, according to journalist Juan Alberto Vazquez, who posted a video of part of the incident on his Facebook page.

The widely shared video footage shows a man believed to be Mr Penny and two other men holding Neely to the floor of a train car for several minutes. Mr Vazquez said that Neely was yelling that he was tired, didn’t care whether he went to prison, and was ready to die. He said Neely threw his jacket to the floor of the train car before another passenger grabbed him from behind in a headlock. Others grabbed at his arms.

New York City Police Department officers attempted CPR upon arrival on the F train at the Broadway-Lafayette platform, according to an incident report reviewed by The Independent. Neely was pronounced dead at Lenox Health Greenwich Village hospital.

A statement from attorneys for Mr Penny on 5 May said Mr Penny “was involved in a tragic incident ... which ended in the death of Jordan Neely.”

“Mr Neely had a documented history of violent and erratic behavior, the apparent result of ongoing and untreated mental illness,” the statement added. “When Mr Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived. Daniel never intended to harm Mr Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death.”

Attorneys for Neely’s family said the statement from Mr Penny’s legal team was neither “an apology nor an expression of regret” but “character assassination and a clear example of why he believed he was entitled to take Jordan’s life.”

Within the week after his death, New York City Police Department officers have arrested at least 24 people – including a photojournalist, targeted by a high-ranking police official – at protests and vigils demanding an arrest.

The mayor said he will convene a summit next week with mental health providers who work with the city to develop an “action plan”. He also will meet with “faith leaders” who are “on the front lines of this issue and we need their help and support,” he said.

“There are more Jordans out there,” Mr Adams said. “People who are loved, people who are in need of treatment and compassion. Jordan Neely’s life mattered. He was suffering from severe mental illness. But that was not the cause of his death. His death was a tragedy that should never have happened.”

Mr Adams notably did not discuss the way in which Neely died. In the aftermath of Neely’s death, the mayor said that “there’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here, so I’m going to refrain from commenting further,” before adding, “however, we do know that there were serious mental health issues at play here.”

In an interview on CNN on 3 May, after the city’s medical examiner formally declared Neely’s death a homicide, Mr Adams, a former police officer, said that “each situation is different” and “we don’t know exactly what happened here.”

“I was a former transit police officer, and I responded to many jobs where you had a passenger assist someone,” he added.

His initial remarks and apparent refusal to condemn what his critics have characterised as an act of vigilantism have drawn widespread criticism, including from members of Neely’s family and other elected officials such as US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In an interview with New York magazine’s The Cut published on 9 May, she excoriated city and state officials who have refused to condemn the actions of the other subway passengers, after the mayor rebuked the congresswoman for her own statements addressing his death.

“I would like everyone to pretend that was their son,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez told the magazine. “I would like anyone to look at that video, see their son, and see if they would say the same thing.”

In the interview, she addresses the failure of public policies to support people experiencing homelessness and their mental health, compounded by rapidly growing costs of living in a city with some of the highest housing costs globally, and pointed to the hypocrisy of officials demanding better public safety while refusing to acknowledge that “a person literally killed another human being on the subway”.

“I think in order to stand up for Jordan Neely, we’d have to admit that public decisions made by leaders have been failing,” she said. “Jordan Neely was killed by public policy. He was killed by the demonizing of the poor by many of our leaders. He was killed by the same reluctance for people to see him as human that leaders are exhibiting right now, even in his death.”

Attorneys representing the Neely family have urged the mayor to call them.

“The family wants you to know that Jordan matters,” attorneys Donte Mills and Lennon Edwards wrote in a statement. “You seem to think others are more important than him.”

In his remarks on 10 May, Mr Adams said his “heart goes out to Jordan’s family who is suffering great pain from the uncertainty of the circumstances of his death.”

“Too many Black and brown families bear the brunt of a system long overdue for reform,” he added. “Our work starts with acknowledging that we must reverse the effects of decades of disinvestment in housing, healthcare and social services.”

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