Today in Focus

Hosted by Nosheen Iqbal and Michael Safi, Today in Focus brings you closer to Guardian journalism. Combining personal storytelling with insightful analysis, this podcast takes you behind the headlines for a deeper understanding of the news, every weekday

How a killing on New York subway exposed a broken system – podcast

How a killing on New York subway exposed a broken system – podcast

Thu, 25 May 2023 02:00

When Jordan Neely, a homeless Michael Jackson impersonator, died at the hands of a fellow passenger this month, it shocked the world. But what does it reveal about the city?. Help support our independent journalism at

Listen to Episode

Copyright © © 2023 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

Read Episode Transcript

This is the Guardian. Today, the killing of Jordan Neely and what it reveals about New York City. With our seven-day money back guarantee, you can confidently shop for cars 100% online. Visit for all terms and conditions. We'll drive you happy at Carvana. So the call comes into 9-1-1. The dispatcher tries to get as much information as they can. For example, 40-year-old male on the entry 59th Street of Manhattan, acting erratic, screaming, whatever it is. Then we make our way into the subway. You always go into a call not knowing if you're going to be okay. Anthony Elmajera is a paramedic, working out of Brooklyn. He loves his job, but you wouldn't say it's easy. You want to approach the patient open to the best of your ability. You want to approach them in a calm voice. You want to make eye contact if possible. You want to get down into their level. And then in the questioning process, you try and figure out what's going on. How are you today? What's going on? How long you've been feeling this way? I myself was almost for two years. So if somebody is sitting there and is not really opening up or they're agitated, I can try and relate to them that way. And say, listen, I know what it's like to not have a shower. I know what it's like to have depression. Anthony says he's been called out on every kind of medical emergency. It could be a heart attack, a shooting. It could just be a splinter. But since the pandemic, he's noticed a significant rise in the number of patients needing urgent help for mental distress. The city's homeless people can be especially vulnerable. There are people who, because of especially a lack of housing, who have made some ways their homes, they hide in the transistors and they hide and sleep in the tunnels. I've responded into the tunnels with these enclaves of homeless encampments. The work is dangerous, but he tries to keep a call head. Retrained to get that excitability or the irrationality back to a rational, more calm state of mind. If we're able to do that, then there's a high chance of being successful in treating those people and getting them help at least for the short term. Not everyone is that lucky. Disturbing video out of New York that's being called homicide by chokehold, that is the medical examiner's room. On the first of May, a 30 year old homeless man, a Michael Jackson impersonator called Jordan Neely, began shouting at other passengers on the carriage of the eff train. What happened next was filmed on a phone. The footage as stunned viewers all over the world. There wasn't a paramedic attending to Neely. He wasn't helped and taken to hospital. Instead, another passenger, 24 year old Daniel Penny, had wrestled Neely to the ground and put him in a chokehold. Neely lost consciousness and stopped breathing. With other passengers looking on, Neely was killed. Daniel Penny went home the same day. He was charged with second degree manslaughter, 11 days later, and then released on bail. In the last three weeks, he has been hailed as an American hero. The crowd funder set up to pay for his legal defense has so far raised over $2.7 million. The case has sent shockwaves across the US. And with it, exposed a social care system that is near breaking point. As a medic, I have picked people up that morning and that afternoon I see them again. I have taken personally people three or four times to the hospital and a day. The hospitals are understaffed. We don't have enough psychiatric inpatient facilities. We don't have enough social workers and therapists. And most importantly, we don't have enough housing. We're struggling. I have had eight members commit suicide since March of 2020. Roughly 72% of my workforce of around 4,200 has less than five years experience. We are losing 10 to 15 people a week. It's a service that is collapsing. Anthony has watched this crisis unfold from the front line. Day in, day out. It's inexplicable to him that one of the world's richest cities is unable to care for its most unwell citizens. It makes me sad that I'm living as a part of this species that's choosing to let people suffer. When I pick up somebody who is in that situation on the street that is the end product of something that has happened years in the making. And in the meantime, New Yorkers are grappling with what's going on in their city, in their neighborhoods, in their communities. The biggest misconception from people is that they think it can't happen to them. You don't know what's going to push you over the edge, where one paycheck or one tragedy away from being Jordan Neely. From the Guardian, I'm not in Iqbal. Today in focus, how a killing on the subway has exposed a broken system. Wilfred Chan, your reporter based in and writing about New York City and you've covered the death of Jordan Neely for Guardian US. Can you tell me what happened on the 1st of May on that subway train? What we know from eyewitness accounts and from a video that was shot after this incident began unfolding is that Jordan Neely came onto the train, he looked as shebbled, and he was yelling loudly to the train that he was hungry. He was thirsty and that he didn't care if he went to jail. There were multiple 911 calls that were made around this time. The timeline is still somewhat in dispute, but what we know through the video is that a 24-year-old military veteran named Daniel Penny puts Jordan Neely in a chokehold and holds him there. There are bystanders who are filming and some folks are warning Daniel Penny that he might end up killing Jordan Neely, but he doesn't let go. So the whole scene plays out over around 15 to 20 minutes, I believe, and Neely, he never wakes up again. That is just so shocking. When did the police arrive? The police don't show up until after Jordan Neely is already unresponsive. Daniel Penny was arrested, but was let go shortly after. Wilfred, this is such an awful story and there is so much to unpack, it's difficult to know where to start. You did some extensive reporting on Jordan Neely to try and help us understand more about his life, who he was, how he ended up on that subway. And in your piece, you write that Jordan Neely's mental health had deteriorated to the point that he was considered by officials as one of the most vulnerable people in New York City. He was known to multiple authorities, he had acquired criminal convictions, but friends and family pay tribute to him as this great performer as a caring and generous person. So can we start there? Can you tell me what you learned about Jordan Neely and how he grew up? Jordan Neely loved Michael Jackson. From the time he was four or five years old, his relatives said he was already mimicking the dancer's moves, he's performing on the block, people loved him. He was just this charismatic, lovable kid who loved music, who loved dancing. His life took a really tragic turn in 2007 when his mother, Kristi Neely, was murdered by Jordan's stepfather while they were living in New Jersey. Jordan was 14 years old at the time, his mother's remains were discovered, stuffed in a suitcase. During the court hearing, Jordan Neely testified that his mother and his stepfather fought every single day, that they were often violent. And what happens after that is that Neely's mental health just takes a nose dive. His relatives say that he became a complete mess. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he sank into a deep depression and he starts showing symptoms of schizophrenia, ADHD, autism. And he's struggling to get help, he's underinsured, he's starting to cut school. And little by little, he just starts falling through those cracks even in those early teenage years. That's such a traumatic beginning, an horrific thing for anyone to go through, let alone a 14-year-old. What happened to him after that? He goes to live with his grandparents in the Bronx. What happens is that his grandparents say he's a really sweet kid, he's very stubborn though, and he starts getting into trouble. Neely starts fighting with his grandparents. In 2010, we know that he threatened to kill his grandfather, and neighbors report seeing Neely sleeping in the hallway of his grandparents building. He's at the same time opening up to his friends at school, talking about the trauma that he's been through, how he still wants to become a performer, how he's trying to find a way to survive on his own. He ended up in foster care, right? And what does that look like for someone like Jordan Neely, and where was he at this point in New York City? So there are still unanswered questions about Jordan Neely's time in foster care, but what we know is that when you're in the foster care system, you can end up getting sent from place to place. It's really hard to stay in the same school. There are systems to bus kids across town to try to make sure that they can remain enrolled with the same classmates, but these systems aren't always working the way that they should. So the dropout rates for these kids who are in the foster care system in school are a lot higher, and from what we know, Neely ends up dropping out of high school. It just sounds like such a grind and just so difficult from such an early age. And I'm thinking about your piece. I mean, you met people who knew Jordan, people who cared about what happened to him. Well, what did they tell you about what Jordan's life looked like once he left the foster care system? Well, we've heard that Jordan aged out of the foster care system as everyone does at age 21, and all he had was a metro card. That's really sad. So he became homeless. He didn't have a place to go. His options were sleep on the train or go to one of New York City's shelters. So New York City is one of the few places in the United States that has what's called the right to shelter. And that means that the city has to offer a clean bed with a roof over someone's head for everyone in New York City who needs that help. This is where more than 70,000 New Yorkers spend every single night sleeping. Well, on the face of it, that sounds like a really progressive idea that every single New Yorker has the right to a bed. But what are these places like? These shelters are not nice places. Assault, theft, all kinds of abuse are common in these shelters. You're not allowed to bring in your own food. You don't have really any room for your own possessions. You have 10 or 20 beds in a room, and it's just a lot of people on edge nervous. They're scared. So we know that Nilee spent some time in the shelters. We also know that like many of New York City's homeless folks, he spent some time on the trains as well. If you talk to a lot of homeless folks in New York City, they'll tell you the shelters are unsafe. We'd rather just be on the street or on the trains than spend any more time in those shelters than we have to. Well, Fred, I don't think anyone can listen to what you've told us about Jordan's story and not see that there were probably some missed opportunities to help him. I mean, in a situation like his homeless without a safety net, struggling to get on while dealing with very complex mental health challenges, what support is available in New York City? There's a lot of organizations, there's a lot of programs, a lot of city agencies trying to tackle this problem, and a lot of them target different areas, different intersections of mental illness, with other challenges that folks face like substance abuse or the criminal justice system, or housing insecurity, food insecurity, but as a journalist looking into this, able to sit at home at the comfort of my desk doing this research, it was hard enough for me to make sense of this network of mental health resources. Imagine being homeless, living and sleeping on the train and trying to make sense of it while dealing with untreated mental illness. Well, Fred, you spoke to a number of those different organizations working in the city. Can you tell me about them and what they have to say about the challenges of supporting someone like Neely? In order to reach the unsheltered homeless population of New York City, New York City has these things called homeless mobile teams, and there are a couple types. There are the city's mobile crisis teams, and what they're designed to do are respond quickly to someone who's having a serious mental health crisis. They can get referred by a 911 operator, and they also have the authority to hospitalize these folks against their will if they make the call that this person might be a threat to themselves or to people around them. There are also mobile treatment teams. The treatment teams have an assigned clientele, and they're getting to know them over months, even years. They try to keep their case load small so that they can really form intimate connections. And that's one of the biggest challenges for these mental health organizations. How do you get folks who have been failed by the system to trust that system? How do you get folks to take medication when medication hasn't worked for them in the past? How do you get folks to agree to go to, say, a therapy program or rehabilitation program when these same programs have been coercive? Some of these organizations that I spoke to, one of them is called Community Access. It's a New York City nonprofit that runs some of these mobile treatment teams. Tell me that they tried to do everything they can before they call the police or forcibly hospitalize someone. And that's because every time you do that, every time you put someone who's mentally ill in handcuffs, or you bring them to the ER where they're cuffed to the table and sedated. Against their will with this cocktail of different chemicals, you're actually eroding that trust that makes it harder to then help them the next time and furthering people into this cycle of not getting the help that they need. What was Jordan Neely's mental illness got worse? Do we know what contact he had with authorities that could have helped him? Well, what we know from the reporting is that in the last 10 years, Jordan Neely really began to spiral downward. I spoke to someone who knew him back in 2013, a friend of his who said that in 2013, he still had a stable routine. He was riding the subway every single day. He was trying to make money. He was hoping to get a job on the nightlife circuit. He still had dreams. He was trying to stay positive. But what police reports show and what reports from mobile crisis teams show is that over the next 10 years, he began to run into law enforcement more and more. Sometimes they would find him on the ground complaining that he was hearing voices, that he was numb, that he was cold, that he was hungry. Sometimes they would pick him up when he was threatening other subway passengers or causing disturbances on the street. Okay, so you've mentioned the police and let's talk about that for a second because we've touched on it on the podcast before, but it is still so striking to me that it would be New York police department who play a major role in mental health care in the city. Can you tell me the extent of what the police are responsible for and why? New York City police have the authority to forcibly hospitalize someone who seems like they could pose a threat to themselves or to someone else. They've had this authority for a long time, but what's changed recently is that Mayor Eric Adams, who actually used to be on one of these police squads that would respond to folks who were having mental health crises on the subway and so forth, expanded police's authority last November to involuntarily hospitalize folks dealing with the mental illness, even if they aren't posing any obvious harm to anyone. And so what that's done is kind of increase this idea that if we just drag people to the emergency room and force them to take some meds, that's going to solve the problem and there's been a lot of pushback against that from the mental health nonprofit community here in New York City, as well as folks calling for more police reform. And what happened to Jordan Ely when he was picked up by the police? What the police would do after these incidences was always different. Sometimes they would bring him to a shelter. Sometimes they would bring him to a hospital. Sometimes they would take him to jail. And in every instance, the end result was kind of the same, which was that he spent some time in a different kind of institution and was released shortly afterward, back onto the streets in arguably worse shape. Well Fred, what should have been done is going back to those organizations and experts you spoke to. What did they say would have helped him? The thing that surprised me about reporting this piece was that every single person I spoke to, the one thing that they said would have made the most dramatic difference for someone like Jordan Ely is housing. Without stable housing, you're just not going to be able to give someone the kind of wrap around social services that see someone as a whole person, not just Jordan Ely in the context of this institution and that organization and this city program and so on. And so instead of this sort of fractured picture of someone who really needs help across a lot of different areas, you get one place where someone can consistently be and receive the kind of help that they need folks really just need someone who is in their corner. And is there anything like that in New York? There is a program called supportive housing, a kind of in between points between something like a shelter and being able to live completely independently in an apartment like other New Yorkers, you have your own room, you share a kitchen, you share a bathroom, and there are social workers or advocates or some kind of resources on site that can be there for you. And how likely is it that someone like Jordan could access that? Supportive housing is in really high demand in New York City right now. There's a lot of barriers. You have to spend 90 days in a shelter before you even allow it to apply for a supportive housing unit. And then once you are approved for a supportive housing unit, very few New Yorkers are able to even get in because there's such a shortage. And then you can look at what you say, if someone like Jordan Unie couldn't have got on that help, and he was on this list of the city's 50 most vulnerable people, he was well known to the agencies that dealt with him to the homeless shelter that presumably had a place in and he was also well known to the police. Can you tell me what you know about his condition in the later years of his life and about his interactions with the criminal justice system? And I think that as the years go on, the descriptions of him seem more and more dire. We see reports that he's lost weight, that he's looking disheveled, that he's exposing himself to other people in the public, he's office medication. And then he gets into more trouble in 2021. He's arrested after he punches a 67 year old woman in the head, and he severely injures her. He's awaiting trial, he's jailed in Rikers Island, which is New York City's notorious jail. There's been a lot of deaths in this jail. It's also one of the United States largest providers of psychiatric care, which kind of speaks to how mental illness has become so tied up in the criminal justice system. And he's in Rikers until this February, when a judge releases him as part of a deal that requires him to spend 15 months in an intensive, in-patients drug treatments center up in the Bronx. But 13 days after he checks in, he walks out. He disappears. The judge puts out a warrant for his arrest. And three months later, he dies on the floor of the New York City subway. Coming up, Jordan Neely's death has divided America. Why are some calling his killer a hero? A cast powers the world's best podcast. Here's a show that we recommend. This nurse, I am Danny K. White, and much to my own surprise, I am a decluttering expert. And the creator of the No-Mest decluttering method and host of the podcast, Aslab, comes clean. I teach strategies I developed by working through my own clutter. In episode 376, I shared three moments when you should hesitate and declutter. Like when I think I need to buy more hangers, I actually need to declutter my closet. If you've heard naturally organized people talk and felt like they were speaking a language you did not understand, come join us at Aslab, comes clean, the podcast. You might just find your people. A cast helps creators launch, grow and monetize their podcasts everywhere. Gloria, on a depot, you're a breaking news reporter for the Guardian US and you've been covering the killing of Jordan Neely. Can you tell me what the public reaction has been like to his death? Both on a national level, but especially in New York City, there have just been this really large showing of support. There's been protests at the site where he was killed. The anger and frustration over Jordan Neely's death continues to grow in New York City. Including people actually standing on the train tracks to block trains from coming as an active protest. So many people came out online to just kind of say like, I knew him. I saw him dance in Times Square as a Michael Jackson impersonator. People from a span club came on to celebrate him despite nationwide coverage of him as an unhoused person with a criminal record. During Neely's funeral, that took place this past week was also widely attended by hundreds of people and even had a eulogy from Reverend Al Sharpton, who was a civil rights leader. We keep criminalizing people with mental illness. People keep criminalizing. People that need help. They don't need abuse. They need help. On the other side of the Republicans and other conservative figures have really come out at support of Daniel Penny, called him a hero for what he's done. Despite the fact that the police themselves have said that Jordan Neely did not physically attack anyone. You don't know how you would react, right? And everybody has to face the fact that this could happen to them. You could be in this Marine's shoes. And you know what? Those shoes right now belong to a hero. Conservative figures have really used us as an opportunity to further communicate their support of almost a vigilante form of justice and the right for Americans to use violence at their own discussion. Because the system exists to protect criminals overlawed by dissidents in New York. Citizens are left to defend themselves from people like Jordan. And that's exactly what happened on Monday. Well, it seems like Jordan Neely's killing has become a lightning rod for so many conversations in the US from how people experiencing mental health crises are treated, how homeless people are treated. But also a much wider look at America's at times very ugly history of vigilanteism. I wonder if you could tell me a bit more about that broader conversation. So vigilanteism starts thinking 19th 20th century when it comes to lynching and these mobs of people would really target black Americans and ever taking it to the contemporary, the killing of Trayvon Martin and Florida in 2013 by George Zimmerman. On February 26, he left his father's fiancee's house to buy Skittles and iced tea during the NBA all-star game, making his way along this path. And crime watch volunteer George Zimmerman spotted him began to follow him. He's a f***ing told they always get away. Are you following him? Yeah, okay, we don't need you to do that. But Zimmerman does anyway. Somebody who feels in power to use violence as a response to someone who is non-threat is not breaking the law. And since then we've seen this sort of logic and captured and things like the stand your ground laws across the United States, which are basically laws that allow somebody who has used violence to claim self defense. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, about 30 states have some form of so-called stand your ground laws. They expand on a person's right to use force if they feel threatened. Ahmed Arbery is well in Georgia who again was simply running through neighborhood before he was killed by a group of white men. It was described as a modern day lynching, a black man running along an American street spotted by a white father and son who believed he had ill intent. And Ralph Yarl and Missouri who was shot by a white man twice because he went to the wrong address. And even beyond that sort of racial dynamic, we have the case in Texas where two cheerleaders were shot by somebody after accidentally entering his car. So, you know, I think that this vigilanteism that we're seeing and the nearly case does have a sort of underpinnings. What about the role of the police here, which is where most people return to in situations like this? How have they specifically responded to the killing of Jordan Neely? The police response has, you know, she took quite a bit of criticism. When it comes to a penny after killing Jordan Neely, he was allowed to go home and then turn himself into authorities. In addition to that, his name was withheld following the killing where Jordan Neely, his public record has been circulating around. This man, who died, has numerous other arrests for assault to sort of conduct, fair beating, according to law enforcement. So, before she quickly says this guy was just houseless, understand you could be houseless and you don't have to harass other people on the side. So, people are clearly seeing some sort of disparity here in the way that the police released Daniel Penny and initially protected his identity. Thus is the way the police quite quickly made Jordan Neely's criminal record public information. Absolutely, you know, and this is something that we've seen before as well where there will be black people who are victims of violence. And this is, you know, both a police issue but also a media issue where the picture published about what has happened to them will be a mugshot or something unsavory. And you'll have the focus B on a criminal record background where as we see typically when it comes to what people who are perpetrators of violence, there is a lot more time taken with their pretrial detention. Generally, there is less emphasis on their criminal record. I'm even thinking of Dylan Roof who committed the mass killing in Charleston, his own treatment by police that was widely criticized. In fact, he was given Burger King after committing such an atrocity as another example of how white people who commit violence are given this extra time and consideration versus black people who are victims. So, Daniel Penny hasn't been charged with murder but he has been charged with a less account of second degree manslaughter and is out on bail posted at $100,000. What has happened to him in the interim? Since the killing of Jordan Neely, Daniel Penny and representative for him have raised over $2 million via crowdfunding for him, which is considerably more than money that was crowdfunding for funeral expenses for Jordan Neely. He also gave an interview to the New York Post. He did say that he was deeply saddened by the loss of life. He said, it's tragic what happened to him, hopefully to change the system that so it has failed us. There's been a lot of efforts taken to really color himself as someone who is not a racist, not a white supremacist and not a vigilante. He wanted to also mention that he is taking a trip to Africa as if that desire to be on the continent somehow protects him from racism. Well Fred, we've just been hearing about how strongly people feel about the issues around Jordan Neely's death in the US. But what is the atmosphere in New York City like right now? There's a lot of angst right now in New York City over what the death of Jordan Neely says about where we live. There's a sense that we all failed him right taking the subway something that we do every single day. We encounter people who are in need every day. There's more awareness now of just the depth of need that our fellow New Yorkers have coming out of the pandemic. And so people are feeling a lot of guilt as well about why aren't we doing more to help folks like Jordan Neely. What does this say about how I live my life? New York is a diverse place and folks have a lot of different responses. I think there's definitely a lot of folks who will complain a lot about the unsheltered homeless population who blame crime on folks who don't have housing who say that these people aren't taking responsibility that we need to throw them in a psych ward or lock them up or what have you. The question is just are we going to be able to take a moment like this look at the life of someone like Jordan Neely and ask what would the city have to have looked like to make sure that he ended up in a better place to have given him a better chance at actually achieving his dreams and not ending up on the floor of the New York City subway train. Wilfred, thank you so much. Thank you. That was Wilfred Chan and Gloria Ollodepo. You can read their pieces titled, Jordan Neely, man killed by Riders chokehold was talented dancer and Wilfred's piece. It's a failure of the system before Jordan Neely was killed, he was discarded. You can find both of those at the And that's it for today. I'm Nushy Nikbal and this episode was produced by Courtney Yusuf. Sound design is by Rudy Zagadlo, the executive producer was Homer Heely. We'll be back tomorrow. This is the Guardian. Acast powers the world's best podcast. Here's a show that we recommend. Listeners, I am Danny K. White and much to my own surprise, I am a decluttering expert. I'm the creator of the No Mess decluttering method and host of the podcast, Aslab comes clean. As I figure out ways to keep my own home under control, I share the truth about cleaning, organizing, and decluttering strategies that work in real life for real people, people who don't love cleaning and organizing. I teach strategies I developed by working through my own clutter. In episode 376, I shared three moments when you should hesitate and declutter. Like when I think I need to buy more hangers, I actually need to declutter my closet. If you've heard naturally organized people talk and felt like they were speaking a language you did not understand, come join us at Aslab comes clean, the podcast. You might just find your people. Acast helps creators launch, grow, and monetize their podcasts everywhere.