Former Petaluma Police officer accused of assault, awaits trial
A former Petaluma Police officer accused of assaulting a young Black woman is set to stand trial in November, marking the first public reckoning for the little known incident that came at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protest movement and pushed the officer to retire.
Lance Novello, a 19-year veteran of the Petaluma Police Department, faces two misdemeanor charges, including assault by a police officer, after what the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office describes as an assault by Novello of Elizabeth Cole, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus.
Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano said he placed Novello on paid administrative leave immediately following the July 20, 2020, incident. Novello stayed on that leave until retiring Oct. 17, 2020, just two days after charges were filed.
Savano, who has played a key role in the city’s work on policing and race relations, including discussions with a resident-led committee that has called for greater law enforcement oversight, said he can’t recall a similar incident occurring in his 27-year career.
“I think the way we responded to this situation, not only as a police department, but as a city, demonstrates and shows an example of how we maintain the trust and confidence of the public we serve,” Savano said.
Details in the matter have so far been limited to a three-page complaint filed by the District Attorney’s Office, which has declined to comment on the specifics of the case after spearheading the investigation last July.
More than a year after the incident, and following the city of Petaluma’s refusal to release body camera footage of the incident, Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said Wednesday the office would make the footage available.
An agreement in the case, however, prohibits the release of body camera footage until Novello’s legal team has had a chance to respond. The arrangement allows 15 days to review such releases, and there was no movement on the matter by the Argus-Courier’s deadline.
Citing the ongoing criminal justice proceedings, Savano said he couldn’t divulge details about the incident, including whether the facts of the case would have merited discipline for Novello had the officer stayed with the department.
“The disciplinary process was not able to be completed because the officer retired,” Savano said.
Cole said she was not yet ready to talk about the case, but she said she is glad to see light shed on the incident now. Novello faces up to a year in jail, a $10,000 fine and the prospect of losing the right to bear arms in California. But he has recently sought a so-called diversion in the case, which could replace jail time with education courses. A hearing on the matter is set for Oct. 13.
Novello, who has hired the San Francisco-based law firm Rains, Lucia, Stern, St. Phalle, & Silver, could not be reached, and a spokesperson for the law offices declined to comment on the case.
The Petaluma Police Department hired Novello in August 2001, and he rose steadily through the ranks, becoming in a detective in July 2013.
Heralded as a “true crime fighter,” Novello was named Petaluma’s Officer of the Year in 2016, an award co-sponsored by the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce and the Argus-Courier, based on the recommendation of the police department. A year later, he was promoted to sergeant, according to Petaluma Police Department social media posts.
Upon retirement in October 2020, Novello was earning a base salary of $115,481. His trial is set for Nov. 4.
Cole is the vice president for student life at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus, and has deep roots in the community. Her grandmother, Dorothy Morris, moved to Petaluma in 1970, and served with the California Senior Legislature, Petaluma’s Parks and Recreation Committee, the Petaluma Health Center and the Professional Black Women’s Association. Morris also helped build the Lucchesi Senior Center.
News of the alleged assault comes just as the city’s race and policing ad-hoc committee is set to issue final recommendations Sept. 21 to the Petaluma City Council, and a year after Black Lives Matter protests rocked the nation and the community, pushing Petaluma to launch the committee.
Savano, addressing committee members’ concerns for police oversight, said this was a case where the existing oversight protocols worked.
“When incidents such as this occur, I immediately notify the city manager, the city attorney and the human resources director,” Savano said. “The city manager obviously reports to the city council, and they’re informed about issues like this as well.”
Savano said the case was immediately referred to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, which led the investigation. Staebell, the chief deputy district attorney, said the office was careful to establish and maintain a wall between its investigators and the Petaluma Police Department, even assigning the case to a new deputy district attorney who had no prior contact with Novello.
In a statement provided Tuesday, Savano said the city refrained from issuing public remarks in the case to “preserve the integrity of the independent investigation and the criminal justice process,” as well as to protect the rights of those involved.
“I’m confident that when more of the details of this situation come out, that the public will see that we did what they expect us to do in terms of how we handled this,” Savano said.
Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at email@example.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.