New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Wednesday that Jordan Neely’s death at the hands of another subway rider was «a tragedy that never should have happened» and vowed to do more to help people who experience mental health crises.

«My heart goes out to Jordan’s family, who is experiencing great pain and uncertainty about the circumstances of his death,» said Adams, a former police officer who came under fire for his initially silent response to Neely’s death.

Neely died on May 1 when US Navy veteran Daniel Penny strangled him to death aboard a subway train in Manhattan.

Neely, 30, was a former Michael Jackson impersonator who was well known among the city’s outreach workers trying to help homeless people suffering from mental illness.

The statement is a change of tune for Adams after he initially refused to convict Penny, instead referencing the rights of subway riders to take action in certain situations.

Jordan Neeley.
Jordan Neeley.Courtesy of Mills & Edwards LLP

“I was a traffic police officer and responded to a lot of jobs where I had a passenger helping someone,” Adams said after Neely’s death was first reported.

The comments angered advocates like Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homelesswho said that violence against the homeless occurs «more often when we have politicians feeding a negative narrative about homelessness.»

An independent journalist who recorded video of Neely’s final minutes said Neely had been yelling at other passengers but had not attacked anyone when Penny tackled him to the ground and pinned him down. The video shows two other subway riders helping to restrain Neely.

Neely lost consciousness during the struggle and was pronounced dead at a hospital.

More on the strangulation death of Jordan Neely

The medical examiner’s office ruled that Neely died in a homicide caused by neck compression, but said the question of criminal culpability would depend on the legal system. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has promised a thorough investigation.

Penny, 24, said through his lawyers last week that he was only protecting himself after Neely threatened him and other passengers.

«Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death,» said his attorneys, Thomas Kenniff and Steven Raiser.

Protests have broken out in the days since Neely’s death, with protesters demanding Penny’s arrest.

Protesters gather for a "Justice for Jordan Neely" rally in Washington Square Park on May 5, 2023 in New York City.  According to police and a witness account, Neely, who was 30 and a resident of a shelter, died after he was strangled to death by a 24-year-old man on a subway train in New York City on Monday.  Increasingly, activists are calling for the man who strangled Neely to be arrested.
Protesters gather for a «Justice for Jordan Neely» rally in Washington Square Park in New York on May 5.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Because Neely was black and Penny is white, some see echoes of the nearly 40-year-old case of Bernhard Goetz, a white gunman who was convicted of a gun offense after shooting four black men on a subway train in 1984.

Neely’s family issued a statement earlier this week criticizing the mayor’s initial response.

“The mayor has chosen a side,” said Donte Mills, a lawyer hired by Neely’s aunt and father. «For him to present that as an excuse to Mr. Penny is very irresponsible, he is not acting in good faith as mayor and it is disrespectful to the family, who is suffering a loss.»

Speaking in a livestreamed speech from City Hall on Wednesday, Adams tried to counter the accusation that he didn’t care for Neely. He noted that Neely shared a name with her own son, Jordan Coleman, and said that all New Yorkers «must work together to do more for our brothers and sisters battling serious mental illness.»

A message seeking comment on Adams’ speech was left with Mills, the lawyer for Neely’s family.

Image: Mayor Eric Adams delivers a speech on the death of Jordan Neely at City Hall on May 10, 2023 in New York.
Mayor Eric Adams delivers a speech on the death of Jordan Neely at City Hall on May 10, 2023 in New York.Ed Reed / Office of Mayor Eric Adams

The Adams administration has focused on addressing homelessness in the city, sending police and sanitation workers to tear down homeless encampments.

Trying to get homeless people with mental illness to shelter and treatment has been a priority for Adams, a Democrat, since he took office in early 2022.

Adams announced a plan in November to hospitalize some people with severe mental illness unintentionally, citing the city’s «moral obligation to act.»

That approach was criticized by some civil liberties advocates as too intrusive, but Adams said Wednesday that the city has «succeeded in getting a lot of people in crisis to the hospital who desperately needed care» in recent months.

NYPD officers respond to the scene where Jordan Neely died on a subway train, Monday, May 1, 2023, in New York.
NYPD officers respond at the scene where Jordan Neely died on a subway train Monday, May 1, in New York.Paul Martinka via AP

Adams urged New York state legislators to pass legislation that would pave the way for mentally ill homeless people to receive treatment. Nortz previously told NBC News that such policies only exacerbate the inhumane consequences of homelessness.

“They have missed an opportunity to educate the public and have instead targeted the people who really need our compassion and our help,” he said of city leaders.

Neely was not the first member of her family to die violently. His mother, Christie Neely, disappeared in 2007 and his body was found stuffed in a suitcase in the Bronx.

Christie Neely’s boyfriend was accused of strangling her, and Jordan Neely testified in the boyfriend’s murder trial.

Neely’s mental health began to deteriorate sometime after that, and Adams said the young man «interacted with many city agencies and community organizations and providers» over the years. “Those efforts were not enough and we must find ways to strengthen our system starting with investigation and accountability,” Adams said.

Adams said he would bring together the leaders of the five organizations that contract with the city to provide homeless outreach services at a summit next week on how to improve outcomes for people with severe mental illness.