Family of Kansas teen fatally shot by police during wellness check blasts investigation

Family of Kansas teen fatally shot by police during wellness check blasts investigation

An investigative report and previously unseen videos from the 2018 death of a Kansas teenager shot multiple times by police during a wellness check were released Thursday by the city of Overland Park — much-needed transparency, his family said, after more than three years of demanding that files in the case be made public.

The redacted 500-page report, along with photos and videos of police dashcam footage and interviews after the shooting, have shed some light into why Overland Park police Officer Clayton Jenison said he fired his weapon 13 times as John Albers, 17, backed a minivan out of his family’s garage.

“I thought he was going to run me over, man,” Jenison can be heard repeating in one video, as he sobbed and breathed heavily after the shooting.

But Albers’ parents believe the files still don’t explain the full story, and questioned Friday why there wasn’t a scene diagram and reconstruction report of the shooting, and why although Jenison’s training history was included, no performance reviews or more information about the officer’s employment were available.

“This ‘investigation’ contains little information about the officer that fired his weapon 13 times or his performance as a police officer,” Steve and Sheila Albers said in a statement.

The shooting of Albers has remained in the spotlight in Kansas, a state where police records are largely kept under wraps, even after a case is closed. The FBI in September confirmed that it has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the police shooting; the review remains pending.

One month after the Jan. 20, 2018, shooting, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe released some dashcam video when he announced that Jenison, who said he feared for his life, was justified and would not be charged. At the time, the police department did not have body-worn cameras.

The newly released files include social media posts and journal entries in which John Albers, a high school junior, expressed mental health struggles. Police were called to the Albers’ home when a friend was concerned that he may have been intoxicated and feeling suicidal and had threatened to stab himself with a knife.

“John may not have been perfect, but he was deeply loved,” the Albers said in their statement. “He deserved an investigation that was competent, unbiased and backed by evidence. This was not an investigation, it was victim blaming.”

The city of Overland Park, in its decision to make the files public, said it had received numerous requests for the report, but consistently denied them because the files had “sensitive personal information” and their release “can have a serious negative impact on future investigations.”

In January, NBC affiliate KSHB in Kansas City, Missouri, sued the city for the release of the investigative files related to the case. The city at the time sought dismissal of the lawsuit, which remains pending.

But in a surprise move this week, the city said it would release a redacted report and some evidence.

“As a result of this ongoing discussion, misinformation has been circulated resulting in a serious erosion of public trust over this period of time,” the city said in a statement, adding that the withholding of the report “has become an obstacle to restoring the community’s trust and confidence in the City of Overland Park, its officials, and the Overland Park Police Department.”

Neither the police department nor the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to requests for comment about how the Albers characterized the investigation, which was handled by the Johnson County Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team. Sean Reilly, a spokesman for the city, said Friday that a 3D scan of the crime scene is being retained by Johnson County’s crime lab.

“Our sympathy goes out to the family and we respect their perspective,” Reilly wrote in an email. “However, the city concurs with the district attorney that the officer reasonably feared for his life and it was a lawful use of force.”

Albers’ family has long questioned the police’s narrative of the night the teen was killed.

John Albers.Courtesy of Sheila Albers

Just before dusk, Albers was home alone while his family went out for dinner. That’s when a concerned friend contacted police for a welfare check, according to a federal complaint filed by the family against the city and Jenison. Albers was known to police because of past domestic incidents, and, according to the complaint, police knew he “potentially had mental health problems.”

Dashcam videos and a neighbor’s security camera showed Jenison and another officer arriving at the home. They first spoke for a few minutes outside and did not knock on the front door or identify themselves. Eventually, the family’s garage door swung open, and Jenison unholstered his weapon and moved toward the door as the minivan, which Albers was driving, began to back out slowly and in a straight line. Jenison reacted, aiming his weapon and yelling, “Stop, stop, stop.” Jenison, who was standing to the right of the van, fired twice toward Albers; the family’s complaint contended that one or both of the bullets struck the teenager, “incapacitating him and rendering him unable to control the minivan.”

The car stopped but then speeded up in reverse, making a U-turn in the driveway and backing up. Jenison fired 11 more shots, and the minivan pulled forward, past another police car that had just approached, and coasted in neutral into the driveway of a home across the street, according to the report and dashcam video.

The minivan that John Albers was driving came to a stop in front of a home in Overland Park, Kansas, on Jan. 20, 2018.Overland Park Police Department

An autopsy report later showed that six bullets had struck Albers: in the head, the upper neck, the left shoulder, the right shoulder, the back torso and the lower lip. A toxicology report indicated that he had not been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In interviews with investigators four days after the shooting, Jenison, who had been with the Overland Park Police Department for about two years, explained: “I unholstered my service weapon. I approached the garage door. The vehicle started backing out. I told him to stop. He didn’t listen to my commands. I shot.”

The car then went in reverse and did a U-turn, and Jenison said he fired again as he believed the car was going to hit him.

Jenison said dispatchers had warned officers arriving at the scene that Albers had been cutting himself and posted on social media that he had threatened to harm himself. The officer added that he was new to that patrol area and couldn’t remember if he had ever been to that home.

Overland Park police Officer Clayton Jenison seen after the shooting of John Albers on Jan. 20, 2018.Overland Park Police Department

He said that he took cover outside of the home because “I don’t know if he’s self-harm or if he also has homicidal tendencies.”

“To protect me, I move closer to the house, so that if he comes out of the garage or front door I can control the situation.”

Sheila Albers said Friday there was no evidence to show that her son was homicidal or that officers should have gone in believing her son would commit violence against them.

Howe, the district attorney, said in 2018 that he decided not to charge Jenison because “these are fluid and instantaneous decisions that a law enforcement officer must make, which makes the job so difficult.”

James Nolan, a professor and chair of sociology at West Virginia University, who is a former police officer in Wilmington, Delaware, said this case highlights a police mindset that automatically assumes someone is dangerous.

“Seeing things the wrong way can create great harm, even though the intentions are good,” Nolan said. “That’s why all around this country this is going on and officers are making these great errors. Suddenly, a car becomes a deadly weapon even if the person is only trying to get away.”

“People are not looking at the police and saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here. I’m depressed. Help me,'” Nolan said. “In fact, it’s just the opposite.”

The Albers ended up settling the case against Overland Park and Jenison in 2019 for $2.3 million, The Washington Post reported, although the city and Jenison did not admit liability and Overland Park said it settled to avoid the cost and length of a lawsuit.

City officials confirmed in June that Jenison received $70,000 as part of a severance package when he agreed to resign, despite the fact the Johnson County district attorney had cleared him of wrongdoing.

The city said the agreement was “in the best interest of the community” and could prevent Jenison from potentially fighting for reinstatement because there was “no just cause to terminate” him and avoid a costly lawsuit. Officials also said Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez never communicated with Jenison about the agreement nor encouraged him to enter into it.

In March, Sheila Albers filed a complaint against Donchez to a governor-appointed state commission that oversees law enforcement training in Kansas. She said Donchez made false statements in reporting how Jenison left the force when he called the officer’s departure from the department a “voluntary resignation under ordinary circumstances and for personal reasons.”

The city said “we will cooperate fully with any investigation into the matter.” Neither Donchez nor Jenison could immediately be reached for comment Friday. The Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training has said it can’t confirm or deny an investigation.

Nolan said police agencies and states must work toward reforms that allow more public scrutiny of complaints against officers and access to internal files so that communities can better trust their local law enforcement.

Kansas’ public open records law allows police departments and county prosecutors to decide when to release information — a practice supported by some officials who believe releasing names and other details can affect a case if it goes to trial.

But, Nolan said, “the more information you put out there is a sign you want to be transparent. That’s how you can build cooperation with the community instead of conflict.”

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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