It’s so commonplace for police officers charged with serious crimes to be acquitted, or have their cases end in a mistrial, that it was surprising when Jennifer Garvey, a former MBTA officer, was found guilty this month of assaulting a Roxbury woman and falsifying official reports about the incident.
In 2014, Mary Celeste Holmes was so disturbed by how Garvey and another officer, Alfred Trinh, were treating a woman at the Dudley Square Station, she called 911 when the officers ignored her pleas to stop. Garvey pepper-sprayed Holmes hit her with a baton. Holmes, who was knocked to the ground and arrested, suffered bruises and a gash that required stitches.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins convicted Garvey, who waived a trial by jury, on two counts of assault and battery, including assault with a dangerous weapon, and two counts of filing a false report as a public employee. Fired by the MBTA in 2015, she faces up to five years in prison for each assault and battery count and up to a year for each false report charge. Garvey’s sentencing is scheduled for July 28.
Garvey, however, was acquitted on the most serious charge — causing injury while violating a person’s civil rights. In a post-trial statement, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley said that decision “shows the challenge that prosecutors face in holding officers accountable when they cross the line.”
Still, there’s some optimism to be found with a verdict that delivers a measure of police accountability. Nationwide, officers are routinely acquitted in violent encounters with African-Americans, but Garvey was convicted for both her deeds and words. She said Holmes intentionally bumped, then charged at her; those claims were refuted by security camera footage. That punctures a hole, however small,in the usually impenetrable assumption of an officer’s infallibility.
A coverup is just as bad as the crime. For this reason, many in Chicago and elsewhere are closely watching cases against three officers charged with lying about the threat Laquan McDonald posed during a deadly encounter in 2014. Though the teenager had a knife, video footage shows McDonald walking away from officers before he was shot 16 times by another officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was subsequently fired and charged with murder.
Some may argue that had Garvey faced a jury, she might have been acquitted. It’s a valid point. Historically, juries have been reluctant to deliver a conviction when an officer claims their actions were taken in self-defense, even when camera footage suggests otherwise.
Still, the Garvey conviction should not be discounted. It represents a sliver of hope for communities of color that rarely expect justice, and a message to officers who break the law that their badge is not a shield from the truth.