Former Petaluma police officer, charged with assault, fights release of body camera footage

The former Petaluma police officer accused of assaulting a young Black woman 14 months ago plans to fight the release of body camera footage from the incident, prosecutors and the former officer’s defense attorney say.

Lance Novello, a 19-year veteran of the Petaluma Police Department, faces two misdemeanor charges, including assault by a police officer. The motion to suppress the video, expected Thursday, comes two weeks after the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office agreed to release the video to the Argus-Courier.

Without the video, details of the July 20, 2020, incident involving Novello, 55, and Elizabeth Cole, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma campus, remain murky. Andrew Ganz, Novello’s San Francisco-based attorney, said the decision to object to the release of the video is rooted in a sense of fairness and respect for the criminal proceedings.

Typically, investigating agencies can make certain evidence, including body camera footage, available to the public. The District Attorney’s Office investigated this case. But prosecutors reached an agreement with Novello’s defense attorneys not to release evidence until Novello’s legal team has had a chance to respond.

“Our decision to object to the release of video of this incident has nothing to do with the actual content,” Ganz said in a statement. “It shows, among other things, that no crime was committed.

“However, a criminal case is a process that happens in court, not in the media. If we knew that the video would be presented fairly and in its entirety, we would love the opportunity to have people see what actually happened, and how far it is from a crime and the picture painted thus far.”

To date, only Novello has put forth a narrative about the suspected assault, said to have taken place at Petaluma Valley Hospital after Cole berated Novello and other officers with accusations of racism after Novello told her to “shut her mouth.”

“Ms. Cole implied that the comments were directed at her because she is African American,” according to Novello’s Aug. 10 court filings. “She repeatedly demanded Sgt. Novello’s badge number. As she continued to make the demand, she walked toward Sgt. Novello, and Sgt. Novello took a step toward her, pointing at his chest where his badge/nameplate was. The two bumped into each other’s torso/chest for a split-second.”

It’s that bump, the defense team contends, that triggered District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s Oct. 15, 2020, decision to charge Novello with two misdemeanors. The move came two days before Novello retired.

Neither the DA’s office nor Cole have agreed to share their narrative of the case. A response from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office is due Monday. Cole said she is working to secure legal representation before commenting, potentially by the end of September.

Citing the ongoing criminal justice proceedings, Petaluma Police Chief Ken 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 told the Argus-Courier earlier this month.

Novello was Petaluma’s 2016 Officer of the Year and retired as a sergeant after rising steadily through the department’s ranks. If convicted, he could face up to a year in jail, a $10,000 fine and the prospect of losing the right to bear arms in California as a result of the charges.

In court documents requesting a diversion, or a lighter sentence, in the case, Novello’s defense team details a chaotic scene the night of July 20, 2020, and paints Novello as a victim of overzealous prosecutors.

“It bears acknowledging the elephant in the room; that but for Mr. Novello’s position as a police officer in this encounter, he would not be here,” according to the court filing.

The night of the incident, Novello was the on-duty patrol supervisor, assisting other officers at Petaluma Valley Hospital with another person when Cole was spotted on the floor yelling that hospital staff had thrown her off the bed and injured her, according to the court filing.

“Medical records indicate she passed out due to alcohol ingestion and did not hit her head,” according to Novello’s filing. “She falsely accused the staff of mistreating her and calling her names because she is African American. She later intentionally hit her head on the edge of the bed.”

When provided Novello’s description of the incident, Cole said via text message that she disagreed with the characterization, adding there was more to the case than the events from that night.

Cole declined to comment further on the case, or detail which portions of Novello’s story she disputed.

The court filing describes an escalating scene that progressed to the hospital’s parking lot, where Cole is alleged to have continued yelling at officers who questioned Cole’s mother about unrelated allegations Cole had made.

“(Novello) later told her that she was free to leave, and that she needed to start listening. He told her several times to ‘shut her mouth,’” according to the court filing.

The pair bumped into each other shortly after, according to the filing, and the situation escalated further, with Cole pointing a pen between Novello’s eyes “as she yelled at him in an unhinged fashion.”

“He grabbed her wrist to avoid being stabbed with the pen in the eye or face, and held it down,” according to the filing, which went on to describe ongoing allegations from Cole in the ensuing struggle. “She said that she was suing everybody, and that ‘at least, I’ll get a civil suit out of it.’”

Novello’s defense team argued the former officer, a married man and father of two adult children, deserves a diversion, which could include replacing possible jail time with education courses.

“His law enforcement career abruptly ended as a result of the instant incident,” the filing says. “This has had an immeasurable and unimaginable impact on his family and him.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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