Editor’s note: Daniel Penny has been arrested and charged with manslaughter. He’s currently out on bail.

The F Train had just left the Second Avenue station on May 1 when former Marine Daniel Penny, 24, wrapped his arm around the neck of Jordan Neely. Witnesses say the man had thrown his jacket on the ground and was yelling that he was hungry. Riders said Penny maintained the chokehold until after they arrived at the next station, Broadway-Lafayette, where the conductor halted the train and called for police. According to witnesses and multiple media reports, Neely was held in the controversial “restraint” position for as long as 15 minutes. Neely, 30, was pronounced dead at the scene. 

One witness said he told Penny he was putting Neely in fatal danger. “You’re going to kill him now; you’ve got to let him go,” he said. Others have criticized Neely’s fellow passengers who helped restrain him. Some criticized the city’s lack of mental health services. 

Lost in the debate, however, is the critical matter of the NYPD’s response time. 

The timeline is confusing: Mayor Eric Adams has claimed police were on the scene in six minutes, despite multiple reports that Penny had restrained Neely for 15 minutes. 

One witness said he told Penny he was putting Neely in fatal danger. “You’re going to kill him now; you’ve got to let him go,” he said.

The NYPD told Truthdig that officers “responded” at 2:27— seven minutes after the first clocked call for help — but video shows a train clock at 2:28 with no officers on the scene. The department has not replied to queries about when, exactly, officers arrived to administer first aid. According to New York City statistics, in critical situations, the average time from 911 call to police arriving at the scene is 7.5 minutes. 

The NYPD’s $11 billion annual budget far exceeds other big-city police departments, including Los Angeles and Chicago. The national average response time for reported crimes in 2022 was 9.5 minutes.  

New York City Mayor Eric Adams listens to Gov. Kathy Hochul deliver her State of the State address in the Assembly Chamber at the state Capitol on Jan. 10, 2023, in Albany, N.Y. AP Photo / Hans Pennink

Jeff Asher, a data analyst who focuses on criminal justice numbers, notes that response times increased all over the country, including for high-priority incidents, between 2019 and 2022. Asher thinks longer response times are due to staffing shortages. But while NYPD staffing declined from 32,000 officers to 30,000 during that time, Adams, a former transit cop, added 1,200 officers to the subways, saying it would increase rider safety. If the eyewitnesses’ 15-minute estimate of the time Neely was held in the chokehold is true, says Asher, it would be far above the national average for police responding to an emergency call. “Fifteen minutes is a long response for an emergency incident,” Asher says. “Most agencies tend to be around five to 10 minutes on average for an emergency call.”

Would Neely have survived if officers had arrived on the scene faster? It’s impossible to know, but it’s unlikely he died in the 60 seconds it takes the F Train to travel between the Second Avenue and Broadway-Lafayette stops. A witness confirms previous media reports, saying they waited 15 minutes for police to arrive. 

“I feel terrible,” the witness, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Truthdig. “It’s been a nightmare. My life changed for the worse that day.”

***

Neely was one of 102,656 homeless people in New York. According to Coalition for the Homeless, the number of single adults who are homeless has more than doubled in the past 10 years. ​​ 

The city’s shelters are crowded and dangerous, so many people opt for the street or the trains instead. In response, Adams has deputized officers to force people into mental treatment if they appear to lack the ability to take care of themselves. (Under the previous standard, they could only be detained if deemed to present an “immediate danger to themselves and others.”) Advocates for the homeless decried the measure. 

“Homeless people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than the perpetrators,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless, said in a statement. “But Mayor Adams has continually scapegoated homeless people and others with mental illness as violent.” 

The city’s shelters are crowded and dangerous, so many people opt for the street or the trains instead. In response, Adams has deputized officers to force people into mental treatment if they appear to lack the ability to take care of themselves.

In the subways, the NYPD’s transit department has become more aggressive in the 473 stations it claims to maintain a regular presence in. “They usually just walk through to force homeless people to leave the train and then they leave,” one MTA employee said. 

Andrew Simmons knows this first-hand. As he heads to the Bowery Mission homeless shelter for the night, he tells Truthdig that Jordan Neely “could have been me.” Like Neely, he says, he has on occasion almost lost it when he couldn’t get enough money to buy food, a drink or toilet paper. “I wish someone had just given Neely a dollar,” he says. 

People seem to be increasingly callous toward the city’s growing homeless population, Brian Ourian, a director of marketing at Bowery Mission said. “For someone to respond with violence to an individual in distress is so heartbreaking,” he said. “We’ve recently seen an increased lack of empathy for people experiencing homelessness and mental health challenges, and now we’re seeing the results of that lack of empathy.”

City and state lawmakers failed Jordan Neely, Democratic State Sen. Julia Salazar tells Truthdig. “He was crying out for food and water,” Salazar says. “The culture that city and state policy have created allows for cruel indifference toward people like Jordan Neely. “It’s deadly [and] we have a responsibility to make sure it doesn’t continue. 

“We have the resources and the ability to pay,” she said. “It’s more fiscally responsible to house people than it is to maintain the shelter system in NYC. “We spend a ton of money to not permanently house people. It doesn’t make any sense.

“You see people on the train or the street, and they’re in terrible physical and mental shape in one of the wealthiest places in the world,” she says. “We have failed to create a civilized health care system.”

What Might We Do?

Most New Yorkers have encountered unhoused people experiencing mental and physical health problems. After Neely’s death, a vociferous debate erupted about what to do when you fear for your own safety or that of a person who appears agitated. Here are some ideas for handling such situations:

  • If an unhoused person asks for help, do your best. Give cash, buy them a meal or a drink, or if you don’t have time or money, at least acknowledge them. Homeless people say that the worst thing about being on the street is that people either react to them in disgust, or pretend they don’t exist.
  • Brian Ourien of the Bowery Mission suggests doing research on mental health issues. The website Mental Health First Aid  offers information on how to recognize signs of mental distress and what to do. “It is important to take common sense measures like honoring personal space, not assuming the person will be open to your help, and doing what you can to not respond alone,” he says.
  • If you see someone in physical or mental distress, call 911. Describe the situation in nonincendiary terms and emphasize that the person needs medical attention.
  • Consider donating or volunteering at the following organizations that help homeless New Yorkers: The Bowery Mission. Women in Need. Coalition for the Homeless. The Doe Fund.
  • Support “Good Cause Eviction.” Sen. Salazar has spearheaded legislation that would prevent landlords from evicting clients without good reason. Tenants would be protected from displacement due to rent spikes and other issues beyond their control.
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