A barrage of media coverage has surrounded the case of Jordan Neely, a homeless man who was acting erratically and threatening other passengers on a New York subway, who succumbed to a chokehold by marine veteran Daniel Penny. In the days that followed, violent protests flared. A crowd of nearly 100 people stormed the station where Neely died, jumping onto the subway tracks in protest.
Al Sharpton quickly appeared on the scene to join the protestors, one of whom declared, “Jordan Neely is dead because he was Black, homeless, and angry.” Sharpton likened the case to that of Bernhard Goetz, who shot four young black men on a subway in Manhattan in 1984 after they allegedly tried to rob him.
What no one is talking about is what led up to the incident on the subway—how the mental health system failed Neely and so many others like him suffering from untreated mental illness. And, in turn, how this system fails the innocent victims of their violent episodes.
In fact, as the result of ongoing and untreated mental illness, Neely had a record of 42 prior arrests, and the victims of his violent attacks include a 67-year-old woman and others who were left with shattered, battered faces. Injecting race into this issue diverts attention from the core issue that is widespread and intractable and has left thousands of vulnerable homeless people on the streets as well as a myriad of victims of murderous rampages by mentally-ill assailants.
The fact that, in spite of his record, Neely was, once again, a threatening figure roaming the streets can be traced back a 1960’s social reform act called the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 (CMHA). The debate that preceded the bill’s passage included reports of overcrowded mental health institutions as well as accounts of abuse of the practice of confinement. At that time, a patient could be involuntarily confined at the request of family members with the recommendation of two psychiatrists. The reform law that was passed mandated that the funding for those large mental institutions would be redirected to provide community-based care centers that would replace those facilities.
Almost overnight, these institutions were emptied and even dangerous individuals were released on the streets when an adequate number of community facilities never materialized. The situation was conveyed in an article in the AMA Journal of Ethics: “Three forces drove the movement of people with severe mental illness from hospitals into the community: the belief that mental hospitals were cruel and inhumane; the hope that new antipsychotic medications offered a cure; and the desire to save money. It has not worked out as well as expected on any of the three fronts. People with severe mental illness can still be found in deplorable environments, medications have not successfully improved function in all patients even when they improve symptoms, and the institutional closings have deluged underfunded community services with new populations they were ill-equipped to handle.”
As a result, many of those who suffered severe mental illness were caught in a revolving door of repeated hospital admissions or wandering inner-city streets where they would be arrested or die.
The victims of the Deinstitutionalization Movement of the sixties included both those whose rights it was presumed to champion as well as the victims of assaults by those who could not control their behavior. A television series on CBS’s “60 Minutes” interviewed four couples with older children with severe mental issues who shared their frustration when they reported threats from their children but were unable to elicit responsive action from law-enforcement or the mental-health systems.
One black couple was told that repeated threats by their son were no longer sufficient reason for law enforcement to arrest and confine him. In just a few weeks, the mother was back on the show, this time reporting that her husband had been murdered by their son who was then confined and charged with murder.
I had a personal encounter that mirrored the experience of this mom. A friend of mine who was a prominent community activist in Washington, D.C. had a son who had returned home from the Vietnam War with severe mental issues. As she was leaving a downtown department store in the middle of winter, she saw him homeless and sitting on a park bench across the street. When she approached him, it was obvious to her that he no longer recognized her. Her repeated attempts to have him admitted to the veterans’ hospital were unsuccessful, as involuntary confinement is prohibited under the CMHA.
The epidemic of untreated serious mental illness crosses all boundaries of race, ethnicity, and income level and took its toll in the family of Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds. Deeds’ 24-year-old son, Gus, was struggling with mental illness and was acting so erratically that the senator feared he might commit suicide and drove him to the emergency room of a hospital. But his son was not a minor and did not want treatment, and the two returned home.
“I felt the system failed my son that night,” Deeds said. The following morning, Gus attacked him from behind, stabbing him and slashing his face. As he was transported to the hospital by helicopter, he heard a report on the scanner that someone had been shot in the head. He would learn that the gunshot victim was Gus.
This so-called “social reform” of the sixties era is but another example of well-intended social policy that is destroying with its “helping hand” the very people it is supposed to assist. It is tragic that race, once again, is being interjected with regard to this issue and will prevent any serious discussion of repealing the provisions of the law that prohibits involuntary confinement.
There is a cacophony of voices demanding that Penny be punished, though there were no demonstrations and scant press coverage, if any, when Neeley viciously attacked his random victims. There are no reports of any actions that were taken to prevent this man from hurting others, and, ultimately, he suffered the fatal results of his untreated mental condition.
In describing how the laws have gone too far in protecting the rights of individuals while jeopardizing their safety and well-being, one psychiatrist coined the phrase that aptly describes their fate: “Dying with one’s rights on.”
Bob Woodson is founder and president of the Woodson Center and author of “Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History From Revisionists and Race Hustlers.”
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.