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How Jordan Neely's death fits into issues of health, homelessness and public safety

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Outrage is growing over the death of a 30-year-old Black man on a New York City subway train on Monday. The incident is proving to be a flashpoint in a larger conversation about race, homelessness, mental health and public safety.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There are reports that say Jordan Neely, who was homeless at the time, was yelling on Manhattan's F train. A white man who has not been identified by police then put him in a chokehold. Two other passengers restrained him. The city's medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but no one has been charged with the crime.

FADEL: To talk about this, we have NPR's Brian Mann.

Good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So, Brian, can we expect police to make an arrest in this case?

MANN: That's not certain at this time. The man who choked Neely to death was questioned by police and then released. So far, he's still free; no charges filed. There are two investigations underway, one by the NYPD and other by the Manhattan district attorney's office, but we just don't know yet how long that's going to take.

FADEL: Before we go any further, I want to know more about Jordan Neely, the man that was killed. What do we know about the life he lived, who he was?

MANN: Yeah. It's a really sad story. He was a street performer. He dressed like Michael Jackson - you know, moonwalking and dancing in exchange for tips. Friends, though, also described him to our member station WNYC as deeply troubled. His mother was murdered by a boyfriend when Jordan Neely was just 14. He then spent time in foster care and as an adult was not able to find stable housing. One witness to Monday's violence on this subway car told media outlets that Neely was shouting about needing food and being willing to die.

FADEL: Now, different politicians are reacting and framing Jordan Neely's death very differently. Let's start with Mayor Eric Adams. What's he saying about this?

MANN: Yeah. Mayor Adams, who's Black, is really the one top Democrat in this Democratically controlled city who hasn't condemned the violence. You know, what was captured on the video here is this white man put Jordan Neely in a chokehold. The medical examiner says compression of the neck is what killed Neely. What we don't know yet is what led up to that confrontation. That's not on the videotape we've seen. Mayor Adams, who's a former police officer, says the public should wait for investigations to be finished. And, Leila, he's also cited this incident as justification for his controversial effort to move mentally ill people off the streets and out of train stations. He's proposed using involuntary hospitalization in some cases to do that. In a statement, Adams said, "we know there were serious mental health issues in play here."

FADEL: Now, other elected officials are condemning police for not arresting the white man who choked Neely, who was Black, to death. What are they saying?

MANN: Yeah. New York City Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also a Democrat, took a shot directly at the mayor about this. She called this incident a murder. And she wrote, I have yet to hear a real explanation from any official hesitating to condemn the killing of Jordan Neely about what makes condemning this violence so complicated. Those are her words. New York City Council President Adrienne Adams also issued a statement saying Neely's killing and the law enforcement response reflect, quote, "racism that continues to permeate through our society."

FADEL: And how does Jordan Neely's killing fit into the wider conversation about people who are unhoused, public safety?

MANN: You know, this really is the major political issue in New York City right now. Republicans, you'll remember, did really well in the midterms last year campaigning on public safety and crime. Mayor Adams has made this a major issue for his administration. And a lot of New Yorkers clearly are worried about people on the streets and on subway trains who are experiencing homelessness or mental illness or addiction, despite the fact, statistically, that New York City is very safe. So, you know, the questions in this case will be whether Neely did anything threatening that might justify this use of force by the other commuter. But the wider question here is, how does this city help people who are struggling with mental illness and homelessness before incidents like this occur?

FADEL: NPR's Brian Mann.

Thanks, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.