Before giving comments at the February meeting of Rochester City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Councilmember Stanley Martin called for a moment of silence for Todd Novick. The questions she subsequently asked probed into the bodycam footage of his death.
“Let me echo a lot of what Chair (Willie) Lightfoot has been saying around asking these questions to ensure that we are an informed body,” Martin said. “But also that the public is informed and that we are moving with transparency and accountability.”
Novick was killed by Rochester police officer Daniel Celiberti in the early hours of Dec. 24, 2023. The 46-year-old man was shot in the back as he started running from law enforcement and had pulled out what was later found to be a replica gun.
Last week, state Attorney General Letitia James released body cam footage of the incident from the investigation into Novick’s death. Martin’s main concern was 20 seconds of video not included in footage previously released by the RPD.
In the extra footage, Novick can be heard saying, “I was trying to put it down,” referring to the BB gun, and his death is shown.
“That version, the one the RPD released, was cut, edited to exclude certain audio, slowed down at times, and highlighted to emphasize the department’s assertions about the incident,” she said. “Why was there a decision made to cut out those last 20 seconds and by whom?”
RPD Chief David Smith replied that the video was a “critical incident video,” which is specifically intended to be released to the public whereas the attorney general’s video was purely raw bodycam footage. He said critical incident videos are often edited to censor profanity or officers’ names.
“In reference to your question, the video ends where it does based on my decision,” Smith continued. “Because I’ve watched the footage and, quite honestly, I could not bring myself to put the last 20 seconds of this man’s life up for public view on the internet and YouTube out of respect for the family.”
He also pointed out that the raw footage was made available to be viewed by Council members and Mayor Malik Evans had viewed it soon after the incident.
“I go both ways, because when it’s out there, that video is out there forever,” Evans said. “It could be a teachable moment later for people to see or it might be seen as a macabre scene. So, I think that’s the conversation to have that I’m very happy to engage in.”
Councilmember Mary Lupien said she thought the justification was inconsistent with other footage where an officer gave aid to a victim and speculated that RPD’s image was the most important part of “critical incident videos.”
“Maybe it’s cynical, but it feels like that’s the deciding factor, whether those final seconds make the police look good or if they make them look bad, and if they make them look bad, it gets cut,” Lupien said.
While Lupien and Martin both acknowledged the challenge of balancing respect and transparency, they still expressed a desire to change the process of releasing body cam footage. Instead of the RPD, they suggested that an independent agency, such as the Police Accountability Board, should be in charge of the process.
“There’s so much power in the ability to shape the narrative,” said Lupien. “I do think we should look at other ways to communicate to the public when these incidents happen that takes out the ability to shape the narrative in one way or the other and really presents it more fact based.”
During the meeting, Smith also explained that Celiberti was first put on administrative leave, meaning he did not report for work, and then transferred to administrative duty, which entails working in a non-public, non-police activity role.
City Corporation Counsel Patrick Beath encouraged ending the conversation in case of future litigation and suggested moving it to an executive session.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].