Jordan Neely, Andrew Goldstein and Kendra's Law

·7-min read
Demonstrators gather in Washington Square Park in New York City to protest the choking death on the subway of Jordan Neely, a Black homeless man
Demonstrators gather in Washington Square Park in New York City to protest the choking death on the subway of Jordan Neely, a Black homeless man. (Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

More than two decades ago, a killing in the subways shocked New Yorkers and led to the passage of Kendra’s Law, a state statute that allowed courts to mandate that severely mentally ill people undergo what is known as assisted outpatient treatment.

The law has been the recipient of renewed focus in recent weeks, as New Yorkers grapple with the killing of Jordan Neely, who was in the midst of a mental health breakdown on a subway train when he was apprehended by a former Marine named Daniel Penny who placed him in a chokehold he reportedly maintained for 15 minutes.

Some on the right have celebrated Penny’s actions as legitimate self-defense in a purportedly anarchic world, while others see Neely’s death as racist vigilante justice meted out with little regard for the law (Penny is white; Neely was Black). But many New Yorkers simply want to know how such encounters can be prevented in the future.

Last week, Mayor Eric Adams offered an expansion of Kendra’s Law as one answer. Although it is not clear whether the law in its current form had ever applied to Neely, two years ago he agreed to a plea deal following an assault under conditions identical to what Kendra’s Law stipulates.

A man identified as 30-year-old Jordan Neely, is placed in a choke hold by a fellow passenger on a subway
A man identified as 30-year-old Jordan Neely, is placed in a choke hold by a fellow passenger on a subway train, in New York City, May 1. (Juan Alberto Vazquez via Reuters)

"We’re hoping we can get Kendra’s Law adjusted to give people the clear understanding that if this person is dealing with a major mental health illness where they can’t take care of themselves, and they’re a danger to themselves," Adams said, "that we’re allowed to keep them and give them the services they need.”

Kendra's Law is named after Kendra Webdale, whose 1999 death led to a debate about mental illness, public safety and the tension between personal and collective responsibility.

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A little after five

Kendra Webdale had moved to New York City from her native Buffalo in 1996. By 1999, she was by all accounts a true New Yorker, in love with a city that had in recent years recovered from the soaring crime rates of the decade's first several years. Now, at 32, she was as a receptionist at a record company. She wanted to be a journalist.

Webdale was waiting for an uptown train in a Manhattan subway station when she was approached by Andrew Goldstein, a 29-year-old from Queens who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Like Neely, he had spent years in and out of institutions that failed to help him. He had begged to be admitted to a hospital, but there was no room. And when he was offered help, he never followed through, a challenge that the social workers who tried to help Neely also encountered. It is, in fact, a challenge all too frequently encountered on the streets of New York.

Andrew Goldstein and Kendra Webdale
Andrew Goldstein, 29, of Howard Beach, Queens, center, is escorted by police officers out of New York's 13th Precinct on Jan. 4, 1999, after his arrest for allegedly shoving Kendra Webdale, right, to her death under a Manhattan subway train. (Marty Lederhandler/AP; AP)

On the subway platform, Goldstein approached Webdale and asked for the time.

“A little after 5,” she answered.

Then, as an R train pulled into the station, Goldstein gave Webdale a shove.

“Ms. Webdale seemed to hover in midair for an instant, with her arms and legs spread apart,” a reporter would later write of the harrowing scene on the platform, as described by witnesses.

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A ‘shattered’ system of mental health care

Two-and-a-half decades before, an enterprising young WABC reporter named Geraldo Rivera had revealed in an explosive investigation the horrifying conditions at Willowbrook, a Staten Island state hospital for disabled children. His report was the latest evidence that warehousing severely mentally ill people in state hospitals left them open to abuse and neglect.

John F. Kennedy began what has come to be known as deinstitutionalization; he intended to replace state hospitals with community clinics, but after his 1963 assassination, the effort was relegated to a secondary concern.

The effort to close state institutions was taken up again by Ronald Reagan, only this time without the proper funding for the community clinics Kennedy had sought. The result was a patchwork of approaches that seemed to work least well for the most ill: that is, people like Goldstein and, later, Neely.

The children's ward at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, N.Y.
The children's ward at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, N.Y., date unknown. (Dan Godfrey/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

A devastating New York Times Magazine article published several months after Webdale's killing offered a withering condemnation of what mental health in the United States had become: “Long before this subway push and another one last month, the state of the nation’s shattered mental health system all but assured such calamities. Yet for each hospitalization — there were 13 in 1997 and 1998 alone — Goldstein was given medication, then discharged, often after just a few days, to live on his own in a basement apartment.”

At his first trial, Goldstein attempted an insanity defense, but the jury was unconvinced. In 2006, as his third trial loomed, Goldstein pleaded guilty and received a 23-year prison sentence.

He was released in 2018.

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Kendra’s legacy

The push for a legislative solution gained momentum throughout 1999, especially after a 41-year-old woman named Olga Maisonet, diagnosed as schizophrenic, fatally stabbed an elderly stranger on a Brooklyn street.

By August of that year, Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, and Democrats in the state legislature had reached a deal that paved the way for passage of what would come to be known as Kendra’s Law. But compromises weakened the legislation. Most notably, a provision that would have allowed judges to mandate hospitalization for people who refused treatment was excised.

Instead, those who refused could be hospitalized for only 72 hours.

Still, the law was a victory of sorts. “Kendra died because of purposefully ineffectual laws and policies that prevent treatment for those with severe mental illnesses, many of whom are too ill to make informed treatment decisions,” Kendra’s mother, Pat, would write in a 2005 op-ed for the Buffalo News. “Some commit violent crimes, many more are victimized, incarcerated, homeless – or commit suicide.”

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The future of Kendra’s law

A homeless person endures high winds and cold temperatures in Manhattan
A homeless person endures high winds and cold temperatures in Manhattan, Feb. 4. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Kendra’s Law has served as a model for assisted outpatient treatment laws around the country. But with the mental health and homeless crises — which are deeply intertwined — only deepening in New York, many policymakers are turning to the more assertive approaches of the past.

Gov. Kathy Hochul expanded the law last year, leading to complaints from civil libertarians and advocates.

Yet there were also calls for her to do more.

In December, Adams called for severely mentally ill people to be placed involuntary inpatient treatment if they pose a danger to themselves or others. The controversial plan is part of a broader effort by City Hall to restore order on New York’s streets. Cities across the country are facing similar challenges.

To head his new effort, Adams appointed Brian Stettin. In 1999, Stettin had been a young assistant attorney general tasked with helping to create what would become known as Kendra’s Law. He later went on to serve as policy chief at the Treatment Advocacy Center, an organization that has pushed for an expansion of assisted outpatient treatment across the country.

“I guess this just became my life’s work,” Stettin said in a recent podcast interview of the months he and his colleagues spent crafting Kendra’s Law. “There was never anything that meant as much to me.”

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