New York

Adams says Jordan Neely’s death proves need for forced hospitalizations

Mayor Eric Adams doubled down on a controversial policy that involuntarily hospitalizes New Yorkers who cannot meet their basic needs.

Eric Adams speaks during a press conference in New York City.

NEW YORK — Mayor Eric Adams said the recent chokehold killing of a mentally distressed subway rider only reinforces the importance of his divisive push to send people who aren’t aware they need treatment to hospitals against their will.

“It is time to build a new consensus around what can and must be done for those living with serious mental illness and to take meaningful action despite resistance and pushback from those who misconstrue our intentions,” he said during a City Hall address about the May 1 death of Jordan Neely.

The incident drew national outrage after a freelance journalist filmed former Marine Daniel Penny confronting Neely who was yelling that he was tired, hungry and didn’t care if he went to jail or died. Penny locked his arms around Neely’s neck for several minutes, the footage shows. The city’s medical examiner ruled his death a homicide and prosecutors are investigating.

While many elected officials have denounced Penny — who said he acted in self-defense and has not been charged — as a vigilante, Adams said the encounter was a tragic example of what can happen when the government lets someone slip through the social safety net.

“I want to say upfront 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 was well-known to the city’s homeless service providers and even appeared on an internal list of people who were most in need of intervention.

In November, the mayor announced a directive designed to involuntarily hospitalize people who are deemed unable to meet their basic needs because of mental illness. Adams portrayed the policy as more compassionate than letting people live on the streets and avoid treatment, but some critics, like the New York Civil Liberties Union, said he was “playing fast and loose with the legal rights of New Yorkers.”

In response to his speech Wednesday, the civil liberties group released a statement blasting the mayor’s focus on involuntary commitments.

“In the name of Jordan Neely, Mayor Adams is again responding to homelessness and unmet mental health need with the failed approaches of force and coercion,” director Donna Lieberman said. “The mayor’s insistence on controlling those in need, instead of taking on the city’s housing crisis or lack of access to health care only fuels stigma against homeless New Yorkers and those living with mental illness,” she said.

The mayor alluded to those criticisms during his address but argued Neely’s death is case-in-point why the city must move forward with stronger intervention in line with what he has envisioned.

His plan aligns with Democratic leaders on the West Coast who are using civil commitments as a way to address the intersecting crises of homelessness and mental health while acknowledging voters’ concerns about crime. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has embraced a similar approach that was once anathema to the party but more popular among Republicans.

In his 14-minute address Wednesday, Adams called on New York state lawmakers to codify some of the policies he announced last year and touted the successes of a city task force that, in some cases, has mandated care for individuals with positive outcomes. He did not mention how many people have been treated by the task force.

The mayor expressed condolences to Neely’s family members, who have criticized his reaction, and said he would be meeting with faith leaders and convening a summit with homeless services providers to improve the city’s handling of people in crisis.

Since the incident occurred last week, Adams has repeatedly said he would reserve judgment until Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg completes his ongoing investigation. That posture has increasingly alienated him from a chorus of political figures and activists, in addition to Neely’s family, who have been putting pressure on him to speak out against the killing.

The mayor stuck to his approach during Wednesday’s address, but also spoke in more personal terms about the incident and focused on what the city could do differently to prevent a similar death in the future.

“The circumstances surrounding his death [are] still being investigated, and while we have no control over that process, one thing we can control is how our city responds to this tragedy,” Adams said. “One thing we can say for sure: Jordan Neely did not deserve to die.”