Self Defense or Excessive Force?

A grand jury is expected to review the case and determine if criminal charges should be brought against the subway rider who applied the deadly choke-hold. The person who choked Neely is identified as Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was questioned by the police and later released.

Jordan Neely had a history of violent and erratic behavior due to untreated mental illness. In fact, according to a Reddit user who shared the incident, the day before his tragic death, Jordan Neely was involved in another distressing incident on the subway. The user claimed that Neely almost pushed someone onto the tracks at the Broadway-Lafayette station in Lower Manhattan on Sunday night.

According to police sources, Neely had been behaving erratically on the train, throwing trash and yelling at passengers. Penny reportedly intervened to calm the situation, and a physical altercation ensued.

The New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner classified Neely’s death as a homicide. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office stated that they would conduct a thorough investigation and would make their decision if to pursue criminal charges.

Penny applied a chokehold to Neely for several minutes. Two other individuals attempted to restrain Neely before they all released him, leaving him motionless on the floor. Penny claimed he did not intend to harm Neely and could not have predicted his death.

With the little that I know of the case, judging by the information presented in the media and my personal experience fighting and managing stress in such conflicts, I decided to run a class last weekend to address this case.

I am going to lay out the class breakdown here. You can read and decide for yourself if Penny used excessive force:

1.  Self-defense is a fundamental right (and if you ask me, a duty) that allows individuals to use reasonable force to protect themselves from harm. However, the use of force in self-defense must be reasonable, necessary, and proportionate to the threat faced. Reasonable use of force requires an individual to assess the situation carefully and respond accordingly to avoid unlawful action.

From the information presented in the media, Penny didn’t act in self-defense but committed an act of warriorship. He tried to defend others from what was presumed to be dangerous – I assume that serving in the Marine Corps trained him to defend others. But despite what people may think, soldiers often don’t obtain a high level of hand-to-hand combat unless their unit demands such skills.

2.  The use of force is justified only when the force used is necessary to prevent an imminent threat, and the level of force used to neutralize that threat must be proportional. Deadly force can only be used in cases of self-defense when the threat of serious harm or death is imminent. The use of deadly force should always be the last resort.

“Reasonable use of force” varies from one situation to another. Every physical attack is different. The level of force required may be different in every situation, as it depends on the magnitude of the threat and the attacker’s motivation to harm.

3.  My assumption is that Penny didn’t have much training in self-defense: he applied a choke hold for too long. Anyone who has been on the mat for even a few dozen hours knows that people “tap out” pretty quickly – they pass out after a couple of seconds if the choke-hold isn’t released. Had he had the requisite training, Penny would have known this and would know how to feel the level of resistance in Neely’s body as it quickly changed from full resistance to fluctuation, and then to nothing.

4.  An individual’s right to self defense is not the right to retaliate with excessive force or aggression. The use of excessive force can result in criminal charges of assault and battery or homicide. Therefore, individuals must be mindful of the extent of force they are using in self-defense. . I am confident that Penny had absolutely no intention of harm by restraining Neely- but these harms are difficult to prevent when we lack the necessary  knowledge.

5.  The question some readers here would justifiably ask is, “Why did Penny have to choke him to restrain Neely?“

That is a fair question with a simple answer.  It is hard, almost impossible, to control someone unless you hurt them badly or you take them to the ground and apply pressure to restrain them. The more you know, the less harm you need to do.

The less you know, the more the term “reasonable use of force” fluctuates, and the more the situation depends on the physical abilities and strength of an individual. .   A physically stronger person should not use excessive force to defend themselves against a weaker assailant. In such cases, the stronger person must choose the minimal amount of force necessary to protect themselves and avoid causing serious harm or injury.

Would you justify a petite woman fighting a man who abused her and wouldn’t stop unless she fought back? Since she didn’t have the physical skill nor the physical advantage to overpower him, she used a sharp object to stab the man and kill him. Would you consider that reasonable use of force or excessive?

The reasonable use of force for self-defense requires individuals to be objective and assess the situation amorally. It requires individuals to use the least amount of force necessary to protect themselves from harm, and the force used must be proportionate to the threat faced.

In Penny’s case, and with all the sympathy for a fellow vet, I don’t believe the proportional amount of force was applied.

Krav Maga is the art of self-defense. There are no rules, but there are guidelines.

Do everything in your power not to get hurt & use your knowledge according to your needs. Putting these two guidelines together will give you the conclusion of this whole article.

In truth, it’s always easy to judge a situation you were not a part of. It’s easy to make assumptions while not knowing the full picture and not the one being under duress. It always feels different being the man on the ground.

Do something amazing,
Tsahi Shemesh
Founder & CEO
Krav Maga Experts