An unarmed teen driver is killed by police, followed by a year with few answers

John Albers, 17, was shot and killed by an Overland Park, Kansas, police officer in January 2018 as he backed his family van out of the garage. 

When 17-year-old John Albers backed the family van out of his garage one evening last January, it's not clear whether he knew that Officer Clayton Jenison of the Overland Park, Kansas, Police Department was moving toward the right rear corner of the vehicle. A friend had reported that Albers was suicidal, but Jenison and another officer outside the house hadn't tried to contact Albers before the garage door began opening. Two police dash-cam videos show that Jenison drew his weapon and yelled, "Stop! Stop! Stop!" Then he fired two shots at Albers as the van moved down the driveway.

Suddenly, the van did a 180-degree turn and began backing toward the garage. From the side of the van, Jenison emptied his pistol, 11 more shots, into the vehicle as it moved past him, the videos show. The high school junior was killed instantly. A month later, the prosecutor in Johnson County, Kansas, ruled that Jenison was justified in shooting the unarmed teenager, and released two police dash-cam videos to show what happened.

That ruling, and those videos, are all that have been provided about the shooting to Albers's family after a year. No police reports. No information on Jenison, who resigned shortly after the shooting. Jenison's name was never released, either, though the Albers family's lawyer uncovered it and named him in a federal civil suit. And after the judge in the federal case rejected Jenison and Overland Park's motion to dismiss the case, the officer and the city appealed the ruling, meaning there will be no pretrial discovery and no disclosure of information by Overland Park for perhaps another year.

"Almost a year has passed, and we have no answers," said Albers's mother, Sheila Albers. "Basically, they have successfully concealed each and every piece of relevant information related to our son's death." Though the video was released, police have rebuffed requests for reports which might explain why Jenison fired and how authorities came to their conclusions that the officer's actions were legal.

Albers' death, and the police secrecy, prompted a new citizens group to form and push for reforms to open-records law in Kansas, and also for police training in dealing with mental health issues. Separately from the Alberses, the group has filed dozens of freedom of information requests for information about police policies and about the fatal shooting. It has gotten everything about policies, and nothing about the Albers case, both sides agree.

"We have a policy," Overland Park spokesman Sean Reilly said. "We don't release the name of the officer" when one is under investigation, Reilly said. And when an investigation is over, if no charges are filed, "We don't ever release the name of somebody who's investigated and not charged." He said Overland Park also withholds all investigative files from the public, even from victims of crime wanting the reports on their own case, and even if the case is closed. "It's confidential information," Reilly said.

Transparency around police shootings has generally been on the upswing in recent years, as police executives realize that maintaining trust with their communities means being forthright about the use of deadly force. Most police departments that have had officer-involved shootings in recent months have released the names of those officers within seven to 10 days.

But some departments have resisted the trend. U.S. Park Police have released no information about their fatal shooting of Bijan Ghaisar in November 2017, and no decision has been made on whether the two officers who killed the unarmed driver in Fairfax County, Virginia, should be charged. More recently, Park Police have maintained their silence over an officer's shooting of a man sitting in a parked car in San Francisco on Oct. 16, though the officer's name became public in a hearing after the victim was charged with illegal gun possession.

And police in Kansas have long declined to provide information about police shootings, citing the Kansas Open Records Act. The Kansas law, very similar to one in Virginia, declares that all records are open but that police may withhold any investigative report indefinitely. The Kansas City Star reported in 2017 that Kansas police departments routinely withhold names of officers involved in shootings, that it was the last state in the country (in 2014) to open up affidavits used for arrest warrants, and that a family whose son disappeared 30 years ago still cannot see the records of the police investigation.

"The only way to challenge or verify what the government tells the public is to have the records of the government's action," said Max Kautsch, a Lawrence, Kan.,-based First Amendment lawyer who is a director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, He credited Johnson County prosecutor Steve Howe with releasing the dash-cam videos of Albers's shooting but said they "don't help us to understand the decision to essentially condone the officer's action. If the government wants to increase public confidence [in police], they need to release everything they have in these public-interest cases." Kautsch said the only way to force Kansas police to release records is to file a lawsuit, which the Albers family did - but Overland Park's appeal of the pretrial decision put that process on hold.

Howe declined to comment. He held a news conference in February to explain his decision in which he said the officer reasonably feared for his life from the moving minivan. Howe also released a three-page "Media Fact Sheet," which Albers's family said was filled with inaccuracies, seen by comparing it with the videos and the dispatchers' transcript filed in the civil suit.

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An unarmed teen driver is killed by police, followed by a year with few answers

A photo from a home security system across the street from the home of John Albers shows the Albers' van preparing to back out of the garage and Officer Clayton Jenison standing to the right of its path.

Jenison can be heard telling one of the other officers, seconds after his fusillade, "I thought he was going to run me over." No other officers drew their weapons or fired at the van.

Jenison, 29, had been on the Overland Park force for two years after serving in the Army and doing at least one tour in Afghanistan, according to an engagement announcement he posted in 2013. Lawyers for Jenison and Overland Park did not respond to requests for comment.

Even before a decision had been made on whether to charge Jenison, Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez Jr. had decided he wouldn't release the officer's name. "In my opinion it won't be released, period," he told the Star in early February. In rejecting earlier public records requests, Donchez told the Star: "It's a safety issue for the officers and their families. There's a climate of anti-law enforcement sentiment in this country."

Jenison's age and length of service initially were not released, but after his name became public, Overland Park disclosed that he was hired in December 2015 and resigned in March 2018. Donchez declined to comment for this story.

John Albers was a junior at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, the oldest of three boys and the son of a middle school principal. Police dispatch records from Jan. 20 show that Albers had been speaking with a friend on FaceTime, the video call feature of iPhones, and told the friend he had taken pills and was "drinking heavily." He told the friend, who called 911 at about 5:43 p.m., that "when the police show up he is going to stab himself. He is done with his life," the dispatch records show. Then, the friend told dispatchers, Albers "stabbed himself in the stomach and chest" while on FaceTime.

The first two officers arrived to the reported attempted suicide within two minutes. Albers's family says neither had received crisis intervention training, used for handling sensitive mental crises. Neither officer went to the front door or tried to contact the teenager, and one of the officers asked the dispatcher for his phone number, the records show. The two officers stood in the darkening front yard, their cars out of sight of the house, the video shows. One officer returned to his car as a woman drove up to the scene, thinking it was Albers's mother, but it wasn't. A second caller told police that Albers was "now posting on Snapchat about J21″ - the police code for suicide, the records show.

After two minutes, the garage door rose and the van could be seen with its white reverse lights on. Jenison slowly approached from the right, the video shows. The van did not burst out of the garage but steadily backed up. Howe said in his media statement that Albers could see the officer through the rear-view camera and that Albers had indicated on social media he knew the police were coming.

Howe said that Jenison was "standing directly behind" the van, which does not appear to be true, and shouted "Stop the car," rather than "Stop" three times. Jenison fired his first two shots as he backed away from the van.

The van suddenly accelerated in reverse and did a 180-degree "J" turn, placing it very close to Jenison. Jenison didn't fire then. As the van reversed toward the garage, Jenison fired 11 times from the side, the video shows. The van stopped, then rolled forward out of the driveway. Albers was dead.

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"We have been told very little," his mother said. "In fact, the night John died, the police never came out and told us that John had been shot. They told us they had responded to a possible suicide and our son had died." They found out the next day that their son had been fatally shot by the police.

Four weeks later, on Feb. 20, the district attorney called them in and informed them he would not charge the shooter. The prosecutor had already scheduled a news conference for later that morning to make his announcement. "We had no time to warn our family or John's friends that they were releasing the video on live television," Sheila Albers said.

In April, Overland Park police held a public forum as part of their accreditation process. Overland Park resident Mark Schmid said he went to "express my unhappiness with the lack of information from the department about John's death." Schmid was "amazed at the number of people who were there to do the same thing. There was no organized effort, and yet the majority of the speakers that night spoke about the shooting and their concern at the way the matter was handled."

The speakers agreed to meet "and see if we might make something positive out of this bad situation," Schmid said. They formed a group, JOCO (Johnson County) United, "to improve safety, transparency, and law enforcement's response to those with mental health problems." Schmid made a number of open-records requests about the Albers case - for Overland Park's investigative reports, Officer Jenison's use-of-force report and the reports from an investigation conducted by a county-wide police group - and all were denied.

"Without knowing what happened," Schmid said, "and what, if anything, has been done to try and make sure it doesn't happen again, how can the public trust the Overland Park police?"

The group has been meeting with police leaders and elected officials around Kansas trying to improve transparency and mental health training, including a public meeting Wednesday night in Overland Park, with commanders from three other departments discussing their mental health approaches. Donchez, Overland Park's police chief, sat in the back and quietly took notes, Sheila Albers said.

Slightly fewer than half of the 247 officers in Overland Park, a suburban city of about 191,000, have received the crisis intervention training used to handle sensitive mental health situations, said Reilly, the city spokesman. But the department prefers to rely on county mental health specialists who accompany the police as co-responders in mental health crises. However, the co-responders only work eight-hour shifts during the week and were not summoned to the Albers call before it erupted. Jenison had not received crisis intervention training, court records show.

Meanwhile, the Albers family sued Jenison and Overland Park police, alleging excessive use of force and improper policies, using the videos and still photos of the shooting and photos from a home security system across the street. Sheila Albers said the family's lawsuit is about information, not money. Her family and their lawyers have not coordinated with Schmid or JOCO United in the new group's attempt to shine light on the shooting, both Albers and Schmid said.

Overland Park moved to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that Albers "posed a lethal threat to both the traveling public and Jenison. Jenison used only that force which was objectively reasonable under the circumstances as he perceived them at the time of the threat," the legal standard the Supreme Court has said should be used in analyzing the propriety of police actions.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree denied the motion in a 27-page ruling on Oct. 26. "Officer Jenison was not standing in the path of the minivan," Crabtree wrote. He said "a reasonable jury could conclude that deadly force was unreasonable because [Albers] only posed harm to himself because [Albers] never had expressed a present intention to harm others," and that Albers had committed no crime and was not fleeing from arrest.

Overland Park appealed the judge's ruling. No schedule for that process is set.

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