Nick Novello has been a Texas cop for 35 years. He’s an outspoken proponent of good policing, a whistleblower on corrupt practices, and a fierce critic of the war on drugs. His views have often put him at odds with his employer, the Dallas Police Department (DPD).

Is it legal for a police officer to speak out for drug reform? Dallas cop Nick Novello is about to find out.

Novello’s latest cause—supporting the effort to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for cannabis possession in Texas—has put him in hot water again.

Over the past few months, according to documents reviewed by Leafly, the Dallas Police Department (DPD) has been conducting an internal affairs investigation to determine if Novello “violated the Department’s Conflict of Interest policy when he made comments supporting a campaign to legalize marijuana.”

Nick Novello: Outspoken reformer.

In May, the department served Novello with papers demanding that he submit “an Internal Statement” about the issue. Novello made that statement—and then shared it with Stephen Carter, a friend and cannabis activist from Waco who runs the Texas Cannabis Report. Carter posted the document. Dozens of sympathetic comments soon poured in.

That post appears to be the first time anyone outside the DPD learned about the internal affairs case. “On a personal note, going public is a hedge against vulnerability,” Novello told Leafly. “On a more general note, the public needs to know this information. People wonder why police can’t police themselves. This is why. Any time we speak in the public interest — even if it’s critical to the public interest — the [department] hammers us. They look to discipline and terminate us.”

70,000 Texans are arrested for cannabis possession every year. Nick Novello wants that to stop.

Loose Cannon, or Bold Reformer?

He’s not well known outside of Texas, but the name Nick Novello is very familiar to the citizens of Dallas.

Over the years, Novello has spoken out on a wide range of issues, from criminal justice and drug reform to the working conditions that officers must tolerate. While he’s taken heat for his confrontational style — Novello blasted the Dallas police chief shortly after the mass shooting of police in July 2016, prompting the Dallas Morning News to call him “a loose cannon” — he’s also been a voice for accountability at the DPD.

Over the years, Novello has spoken out on a wide range of issues. He's a whistleblower and a voice for accountability.

In the mid-2000s, Novello became one of the primary whistleblowers in a major DPD scandal involving inflated arrest numbers. A group of Dallas cops was writing fake misdemeanor tickets for vagrants in their database, then arresting them for failure to appear. While some officers vented their grievances anonymously, Novello went public.

“They detain these people and manufacture the reasons. Snap — they’re going to jail,” he told D Magazine in 2007. “They’re generating activity numbers on the backs of the disenfranchised — the whores, the street-level drug users, the people no one cares about.”

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His Advocacy Began Over Dinner

Novello’s passion for marijuana reform began more than five years ago when he met Dallas resident Tim Timmons. Timmons, who died in 2012, was an unlikely cannabis activist. An evangelical family man with multiple sclerosis, Timmons became a medical marijuana patient as his symptoms worsened. He was known for sparking up and then daring cops to arrest him.

Years ago, Novello says, some cannabis advocates invited him to a Mediterranean restaurant in Dallas. Curious, he decided to go. Timmons was there, though Novello doesn’t remember him smoking.

“He was on the ground, quadriplegic. And he asked me, ‘Nick, am I criminal for using cannabis?’” Novello recalls. “He had a big smile on his face. For me, it was a very emotional moment. I was already keen on the idea of advocating, but this put me over the top.”

 

Dallas resident and cannabis activist Tim Timmons, above, lit up and dared cops to arrest him. Timmons died in 2012.

A Man of Faith

Timmons and Novello bonded over their shared devotion to the Christian faith. Even today, when Novello adopts a cause he pursues it with almost religious zeal. He studies the Bible regularly and has a verse for almost every situation. He says Ephesians 5:11, in particular, requires him to speak out against unjust marijuana laws.

'Police departments across the land are criminalizing those we have sworn to protect.'
Nick Novello

“Don’t partake in the fruits of unrighteousness, but instead reprove them,” Novello said in one phone interview, amalgamating several common translations for the verse. “Reprove is a Greek verb, elencho. It means to expose, to hold someone accountable. I believe that to be my Biblical mandate.”

Novello started giving talks at marijuana reform events. He became a member of LEAP, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Earlier this year he appeared in ads for House Bill 81, the failed bid to decriminalize cannabis throughout the state.

As part of that effort, Novello made a YouTube video aimed at swaying President Donald Trump’s position on legalization. “We have done some unspeakable things because of some really bad laws,” he says in that clip. “What I’d like to ask today, sir, is that you give serious consideration to removing cannabis from the Schedule I status.”

 

Novello’s YouTube video addressed to President Trump, above, did not please his superiors in the Dallas Police Department.

“I Have a Conflict of Conscience”

Novello’s activism has never sat well with the Dallas Police Department.

The way Novello reacted to the DPD’s internal investigation helps explain not only why he might frustrate his higher-ups, but also why Texas cannabis activists love him. DPD asked Novello to answer a questionnaire about his activism on behalf of legalization. He used his response to launch a blistering attack on DPD’s moral integrity.

“I stand by what I have been saying for years: police departments across the land are criminalizing those we have sworn to protect,” he wrote. Pointing out that marijuana laws “differ from state to state” and that young minorities “have had their lives defined by an arrest for marijuana possession,” he argues he has a “conflict of conscience” rather than a conflict of interest.

“I suggest that this investigation says more about the Dallas Police Department and its priorities than it does about me and mine,” he concluded. “Respectfully submitted, Nicolo Novello, #9002.”

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Not Enough Cops

Dallas Police Department officials declined to comment on the investigation, citing the “ongoing” nature of the case. Novello will, though. He thinks it’s an attempt to frustrate and embarrass him before he leaves, and he’s pretty irritated. He’d planned to retire in September but now feels like he can’t. Walking out during an investigation, he said, would be the police equivalent of a dishonorable discharge.

More recently, Novello has also drawn attention to what he says is a dangerous manpower shortage at DPD. Hundreds of officers have left the department. In at least one case, a 911 call about a home invasion went unanswered.

Novello worries what a stressed, overworked cop would do in a moment of crisis. If an officer dies or kills an innocent citizen, he says, there’ll be “blood on the hands” of the city council and the mayor.

In May, as DPD was already investigating Novello for alleged conflict of interest, he showed ABC News department logs proving there weren’t enough officers to respond to 911 calls. Result: another internal affairs investigation.

It says a lot about Novello that he played the role of whistleblower even after he was in trouble with his bosses. In speaking with Leafly, he asked me to include two details: (1) that he loves his wife a lot and (2) that he is “invoking federal whistleblower protections.”

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Novello’s drive to take on multiple issues at once isn’t always the best strategy for making allies. He admits he isn’t exactly a peacemaker. His willingness to raise his voice about the cop shortage seems to have left him with few friends among municipal leadership. And he has gripes with Dallas’s new police chief, Ulysha Renee Hall, who he says is “squeezing” the department.

Novello can be charming, but it’s easy to see why those on the receiving end of his wrath would take against him.

Like him or not, though, his quiet internal affairs case has big implications for the way Texas police do their jobs. Around 70,000 Texans are arrested each year for marijuana possession, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. What happens if a cop thinks it’s wrong to arrest a person for cannabis possession?

Quoting Wittgenstein Over Lunch

At 63, Novello seems young for his age. He grew up in the Bronx and still has a strong accent to show for it. Broad shouldered and charismatic, with a salt-and-pepper beard and at least four bald eagle tattoos, he vaguely resembles the actor from Dos Equis commercials.

'It's refreshing to see a guy like Nick in this movement.'
Stephen Carter, Texas Cannabis Report

The Dallas Morning News called him “a cop straight out of central casting,” but that doesn’t quite capture the cerebral range of Novello’s personality. During an interview over lunch at a Dallas pizzeria, Novello brought up Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a 1921 work by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that examines the disconnect between language and reality. It could explain, he said, why Dallas politicians talked a good game but didn’t deliver.

Texas cannabis activists love him. Stephen Carter, who manages Novello’s Facebook page, describes him as “a stand-up guy.” Carter runs Texas Cannabis Report, a news site for state activists. He met Novello at a reform event in early 2017.

“He came across as very powerful and very genuine,” Carter recalled. “It’s refreshing to see a guy like Nick in this movement.” He convinced Novello to let him handle his social media accounts. “Everyone has to have a public brand these days,” Carter said. “The Internet is a bit more of a foreign thing for him, as it is for a lot of older people.”

‘I’m an Open Book’

Heather Fazio, the Marijuana Policy Project’s Texas political director, offered a similarly glowing assessment of Novello. “He’s willing to speak out against injustice, even it’s against his best interests,” she said. “To my mind, Nick Novello is a hero for having the courage to stand against the status quo in Texas and do what’s right.”

Fazio remembered when she first saw him speak. It was around 2014, at a cannabis seminar in Austin. Novello is a quotable straight shooter — “I’m an open book,” he likes to say. Fazio recalled his speech as a blunt assessment of the criminal justice system. “I was blown away,” she said. “We bonded immediately.”

The two stayed in touch. In early 2017, she asked Novello if he’d appear in educational materials for House Bill 81, a decriminalization bill that ultimately did not pass. Novello said yes, but he had a request of his own. “He wanted to make a video for Donald Trump,” Fazio said.

While Fazio wasn’t involved with this second video, her cameraman offered to help Novello out. “He changed his outfit and we set him up differently,” she said. “He knew there was going to be a camera, so he wanted his voice to be heard. I don’t think it was at all intended to be an act of defiance to the department.”

What’s Up With That Video?

Apparently, Dallas Police officials disagreed. A few weeks later, someone from the DPD called Fazio. The officer asked Fazio about the videos and her work with Novello. “It came out during the conversation that there was an internal affairs investigation,” she said.

The officer asked her for copies of her emails with Novello. In retrospect, Fazio says, it’s clear the officer was “basically fact-finding.” Fazio forwarded the emails, then called Novello. “I wanted to make sure he had a heads up that something weird was going on,” she said.

Best local cannabis news in the Lone Star State.

Since nobody at the DPD will talk about investigation, it’s hard to know the department’s position. Neither the DPD public information office nor the sergeant handling the case would respond to Leafly’s request for comment.

Leafly filed a records request with the Dallas Police Department under the Texas Public Information Act, asking for documents and internal communications related to the investigation. After months of waiting, the DPD still has not handed over a single document.

The department defines a conflict of interest in Chapter IX of its Code of Conduct. While the rules mostly talk about financial entanglements, it also says officers can’t use their “City employment to advance personal or private interests.” DPD officials could feasibly make a case that Novello violated those rules by voicing his opinions about decriminalization. After all, he’s criticizing some of the same laws he’s tasked with enforcing.

But It’s OK to Lobby for Prohibition?

The decision to investigate Novello is still strange, for a few reasons. While the DPD accuses Novello of campaigning to “legalize” cannabis, Novello says he’s only ever called for decriminalization and medical marijuana reform. Meanwhile, members of the Texas Sheriffs Association have openly lobbied against the passage of those same cannabis decriminalization bills.

It begs the question: Is Novello being singled out because he’s campaigning or simply because he’s taken the “wrong side” of the issue, in the eyes of his superiors in the DPD?

'We have done some unspeakable things because of some really bad laws.'
Novello, quoting Terrence Cunningham of the Int'l Assoc. of Chiefs of Police

After all, he’s hardly the first cop to criticize harsh drug policing. The most damning line from his Trump video — “we have done some unspeakable things because of some really bad laws” — is a quote from Terrence Cunningham, deputy executive director for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

At what point does activism cross into “personal or private interest”? Neither the DPD Code of Conduct nor the investigative documents clarify this. Dallas itself recently passed a decriminalization ordinance. Novello points out that support for recreational and medical marijuana continues to rise — up to 83 percent in favor, according to a February poll from University of Texas and Texas Tribune.

Besides, there don’t seem to be any examples where Novello refused to enforce the law. He’s mostly just spoken out against cannabis prohibition, and that’s a free speech issue, argues Heather Fazio, the Texas activist. While she found a photo of Novello in uniform for one of her ads, she pointed out that he usually talks cannabis issues when he’s off the clock and out of uniform. She contrasts that with the anti-decrim crowd.

“We have law enforcement coming to the Capitol in uniform to testify against [cannabis reform laws] that citizens want to have enacted,” Fazio said. “If officers can’t speak out, that’s an unacceptable contradiction. [Novello’s] job doesn’t remove his freedom of speech.”

‘Check With Us in April’

In investigative documents, the DPD’s questions for Novello are mostly quibbling. The department has asked about his social media use, and whether he gave Fazio permission to use a uniformed photo of himself in ads. The last question seems to hit at the core of the investigation. “As you are currently in patrol and perform patrol duties,” DPD officials have asked him, “could you enforce the laws…and make an arrest for possession for marijuana?”

Leafly contacted more than a dozen Dallas Police officials for comment. None responded.

Novello didn’t directly address that question in his written response. When Leafly pressed him on this, he declined to answer. “If I responded to that, they might try to fire me,” he said.

Still, he argued that law enforcement officers already have discretion when making arrests. A kid with a joint, he said, is different from a guy with multiple pounds of marijuana and guns. Novello started working as a cop in the 1980s. Most of the drug arrests he’s made, he said, were for crack cocaine. He can only remember “a handful” of marijuana arrests.

“I’d be really hurting if I knew a guy was doing 15 years in prison for marijuana and I put him there,” Novello said.

Leafly reached out to more than a dozen Dallas officials seeking comment for this story. None of them accepted, which suggests that Novello is perhaps a more divisive figure among city leadership than he is with cannabis activists.

Leafly sent multiple requests for comment to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, along with all 14 members of the Dallas City Council. No one replied. DPD officials wouldn’t even discuss Novello’s career in general terms. The department’s public information office declined to comment for a profile, as did Chief Ulysha Renee Hall.

The Dallas Police Association, which represents Dallas police officers but isn’t directly affiliated with the city, also declined to comment. A spokesman suggested Leafly call back on April 20.

 

Photo/Illustration Credits: Top illustration by Amy Phung / Leafly. Photo of Dallas by f11photo/iStock. Photo of Nick Novello courtesy of Texas Cannabis Report.