It took five years for Daniel Pantaleo—the New York police officer who killed Eric Garner—to be fired. It took only took nine days for Hugh Hurwitz—the US prison chief—to lose his job after Jeffrey Epstein died in prison.
Both disciplinary actions took place today (Aug. 19), highlighting the racial and class disparities running through America’s justice and law enforcement system. From the outside looking in, the US appears to be a country where a black man suspected of a minor crime can be choked to death by a police officer, and only after five years and a long legal battle will someone pay for it. But it takes only days for someone to be held responsible for the death of a wealthy white man convicted of repeated sexual assault.
In 2014, Pantaleo and other officers stopped Garner—a 44-year-old African American man—because they believed he was selling single cigarettes, untaxed. Garner denied the accusation and complained that the officers were harassing him. That’s when Pantaleo wrestled Garner to the ground, choking him. Garner cried that he couldn’t breathe—11 times. Then he passed out. An ambulance was called. Doctors declared Garner dead about an hour after the incident.
Chokeholds are banned by the police department. Yet no charges were filed against Pantaleo, who was allowed to keep working until earlier this month. After years of legal battles, a court finally found the officer guilty of reckless assault on Aug. 2. He was still only suspended without pay. After a backlash, New York police commissioner James P. O’Neill fired Pantaleo today.
Justice moves much faster, meanwhile, when the person to die in police custody is a rich white man, no matter the gravity of his crimes. Epstein, a convicted sex offender accused of human trafficking and sexually assaulting minors, was found dead by suicide earlier this month in his prison cell at Metropolitan Correctional Center. In reaction, just nine days later, none other than US attorney general William Barr took it upon himself to fire the country’s senior-most prison official. Kathleen Hawk Sawyer will take Hurwitz’s place, Barr announced, after he promised to “get to the bottom” of why prison guards failed to protect Epstein.
Years after Garner’s death—which in part prompted the rise of Black Lives Matter and sparked large protests in New York and elsewhere in the country—law enforcement in America continues to target people of color. According to a recent study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a black man in the US has a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by the police, making such killings a leading cause of death for black men.