By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN
The death following the chokehold of a street performer who was unsheltered and facing mental health challenges “is a tragedy that never should have happened,” New York’s mayor said Wednesday as he called for mental health care reform in the nation’s largest city and beyond.
While his “severe mental illness … was not the cause” of Jordan Neely’s death, the incident — still under investigation as a homicide — highlights the need for better systems to support those struggling with such problems, Mayor Eric Adams said in a news conference.
Neely, 30, was restrained in a chokehold May 1 on a Manhattan subway by another rider, Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old US Marine veteran, after Neely began shouting he was hungry, thirsty and had little to live for. His death has ignited protests and calls for Penny’s arrest while refocusing attention on struggles with homelessness and mental illness across America.
The Democratic mayor on Wednesday did not utter Penny’s name or mention the exact circumstances that led to the fatal chokehold. Neely’s death was ruled a homicide, though the designation doesn’t mean there was intent or culpability, a spokesperson for the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said, noting that’s a matter for the criminal justice system to determine.
“While we have no control over that process, one thing we can control is how our city responds to this tragedy,” Adams said.
Neely’s family has criticized Penny’s “indifference” and called for his imprisonment. “He knew nothing about Jordan’s history when he intentionally wrapped his arms around Jordan’s neck, and squeezed and kept squeezing,” the family’s attorneys have said.
Penny “never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death,” Penny’s lawyers, who identified him as the man in the encounter with Neely, said in a statement.
City must help those ‘unaware of their own need’
Neely in recent years had interacted with New York City agencies and community-based providers, Adams said. He’d also been on a city Department of Homeless Services list of unhoused people with acute needs compiled so outreach organizations can be on the lookout for those people, who tend to disappear, and alert the city’s homeless services department, a source told CNN.
“I want to state up front that there were many people who tried to help Jordan get the support he needed,” Adams said. “But the tragic reality of severe mental illness is that some who suffer from it are, at times, unaware of their own need for care.”
Neely and others “in many cases and through no fault of their own, they resist treatment, walk away from a chance for recovery and disappear into the shadows,” he said. “It is the nature of this cruel disease.”
Adams highlighted New York City’s behavioral health task force of staff from city government, state partners and community organizations who meet weekly to find solutions for New Yorkers who are unsheltered and struggling with mental illness.
Leaders of five organizations that the city contracts with for homeless outreach will meet next week to “develop an action plan for ensuring that removals to hospitals where an individual’s need for mental health treatment can be assessed when appropriate,” Adams said.
The mayor also reiterated calls for New York state lawmakers to pass the Supportive Interventions Act, part of a legislative agenda he announced last year to “address a series of flaws and gaps in New York state mental hygiene law that are making it more difficult to help those who don’t know they need help.”
With it, Adams — a former transit police and NYPD officer — directed first responders to enforce a state law that lets them potentially involuntarily commit people experiencing a mental health crisis, drawing some criticism. The directive allows for due process, city officials said at the time.
“We cannot and will not accept this state of affairs,” Adams said Wednesday. “We will not walk by those in need, step over those who are suffering, or ignore those calls for help. We will respond with care, compassion, and action.
“It is time to build a new consensus around what can and must be done for those living with serious mental illness … our vision is to create a better system that goes beyond one incident or tragedy.”
‘Jordan Neely’s life mattered,’ mayor says
Neely, who became known for his Michael Jackson impersonations, had experienced mental health issues since 2007, when he was 14 and his mother was murdered, attorneys for his family have said. Neely had been traumatized after his mother’s brutal killing was followed by the discovery of her body in a suitcase, his friend Moses Harper told CNN.
“Jordan Neely’s life mattered,” Adams said, noting his own son is named Jordan. “He was suffering from severe mental illness, but that was not the cause of his death. His death is a tragedy that never should have happened.”
Neely’s funeral is set for May 19 at Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem. His family asked the Rev. Al Sharpton to deliver his eulogy.
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CNN’s Laura Ly contributed to this report.