NYPD ‘Accidental’ Killer Cop’s Rise to Brooklyn Chief Questioned

By Eileen Grench, THE CITY

NYPD Chief John Chell in a picture celebrating a previous promotion, dated May 3, 2019.
NYPD Chief John Chell in a picture celebrating a previous promotion, dated May 3, 2019. | @NYPD84Pct / Twitter

By Eileen Grench, THE CITY. This article was originally published by THE CITY

Logo for THE CITYMayor Bill de Blasio this week weighed in on the killing of Daunte Wright, a young Black man fatally shot by a Brooklyn Center, Minn., cop who says she mistook her gun for a taser.

“Why are people allowed to be police officers if they don’t know how to handle their weapon?” he asked Monday during an interview with Ebro Darden on radio station Hot 97.

Community leaders in Brooklyn, N.Y., want to ask the mayor and police brass the same thing, as they question the recent assignment of Chief John Chell to head up the Brooklyn North Detective Bureau. It marked the latest high-profile job for a cop who says he accidentally fired his gun in the fatal 2008 shooting of a young Black man.

“I think that anybody, any person that pulls a gun and shoots an innocent person, you know — I don’t care if it’s a cop, I don’t care what position they hold,” said Christopher Banks, 37, a former 75th Precinct Community Council president who worked with Chell. “There needs to be some accountability.”

Nearly 13 years ago, then-Lieutenant Chell, who led the Brooklyn South Auto Larceny squad, shot and killed 25-year-old Ortanzso Bovell on an August night in East Flatbush.

Chell told investigators he unintentionally fired his gun as he was side-swiped by the car cops say Bovell had broken into and was driving — fatally striking the young man in the back. Neither the NYPD nor the Brooklyn district attorney pursued charges.

But in 2017, a civil jury determined that Chell “intentionally discharged” his gun and awarded grieving mother Lorna Wright-Bovell $2.5 million.

During the trial in Brooklyn Civil Court, Chell took the stand for three days, insisting the shooting was an “accident” after falling. But multiple experts testified that he had shot Bovell from a standing position. Various witnesses said Chell had his gun out, stumbled and fired as the Mustang GT drove away, according to the Daily News.

At the time of the verdict, a “high-ranking police source” told the paper the NYPD had no plans to reexamine the incident.

‘Things Sometimes Happen’

Since the killing, Chell has risen through the ranks, eventually heading up the 79th and 75th precincts, as well as the Brooklyn South Detective Bureau, before taking over the Brooklyn North squad last Friday, according to internal police documents obtained by THE CITY.

The Detective Bureau is “responsible for the prevention, detection, and investigation of crime,” according to the NYPD, and works with precinct cops to solve major cases.

“I think it’s an absolute outrage,” Wright-Bovell’s lawyer in the civil case, Jon Norinsberg, told THE CITY Wednesday.

“He basically murdered this young man and took away his life. The fact that he still has a job is shocking in his own right, the fact that he continuously gets promoted is an absolute disgrace.”

Following inquiries by THE CITY, Avery Cohen, spokesperson for de Blasio, said that the Mayor’s Office is “looking into the matter.”

A spokesperson from the NYPD, who would not provide their name, referred in an email to a statement previously issued by another nameless rep for the city Law Department, which defended Chell at taxpayer expense in 2017.

“We respect the jury’s verdict in this tragic case although it is inconsistent with our view of the evidence,” the statement read. “We will review our legal options.”

No appeal was ever filed. The Law Department this week referred questions back to City Hall. Chell could not be reached for comment.

Chris Monahan, president of the Captains Endowment Association, Chell’s union, said the cop’s rise has been warranted.

“John’s a very successful executive, you know,” Monahan told THE CITY Thursday. “He’s moved up the ladder because of his successes. And, you know, unfortunately, in this type of work, things sometimes happen.”

‘Don’t Want Him Here’

Promotions above the rank of captain, like Chell’s, are merit-based and at the discretion of the police commissioner, according to the department.

Chell’s new assignment follows five Civilian Complaint Review Board cases dating back as far as 1997 and as recently as 2017, three of which alleged physical force.

In the 2017 case, Chell was accused of sitting on a man so hard at the 75th Precinct station house that the complainant said that he felt his “arm was gonna snap.”

None of the incidents were substantiated by the CCRB. According to multiple current and former officers interviewed by ProPublica last year, there is no formal system for examining CCRB complaints as part of the NYPD promotions process.

Norinsberg believes the deadly 2008 shooting reverberates in 2021.

“Post [George] Floyd, this case would be viewed much differently,” he said, noting widespread outrage following the killing of Floyd last year by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, who is currently on trial for murder. “I think there would probably be criminal charges that would be vigorously pursued if this case came up today.”

When Chell was assigned to be commanding officer of East New York’s 75th Precinct, in 2016, members of the local Precinct Community Council say they knew nothing of the 2008 killing. Council president Banks and local civil rights leader Rev. Kevin McCall told THE CITY Chell did little to address police misconduct under his watch.

McCall said when community members learned in 2017 of Chell’s involvement in the Bovell killing they were shocked.

“If we would’ve knew that, we would have rallied and protested and said we don’t want him here,” said McCall, founder of the Crisis Action Center in Brownsville.

Monahan maintained that the NYPD goes through a “very thorough investigation in every police-related shooting or discharge.”

According to numbers released by the department, there were 223 “unintentional discharges” of police firearms between 2006 and 2019. The NYPD does not break down the incidents further, but the 2019 Use of Force Report claims no one was killed by accidental shots that year.

‘Very Serious Concerns’

Two local politicians have also joined calls to examine Chell’s recent appointment.

“My office was recently made aware of this appointment at Brooklyn North and we have very serious concerns,” state Assemblymember Emily Gallagher (D-Brooklyn) said in a written statement.

“We requested a meeting with NYPD leadership and will keep the community updated,” she said. “What we do know about this officer’s record is certainly troubling and begs serious questions about the NYPD’s promotion practices.”

Councilmember Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), whose district Chell will continue to operate in, said the command assignments send the wrong message.

“You would think that that would mean that that person’s career would stop advancing — not 13 years later be the chief of North Brooklyn Detectives,” said Levin, who said he was writing a letter to NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.

“There are qualified people in the Police Department to rise to that rank,” he added.  “Find one with a clean record that the community can trust.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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