‘Not a good shoot’: Experts criticize Overland Park police shooting of John Albers

A Johnson County task force’s investigation of the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old John Albers in Overland Park was incomplete and should be reopened, according to experts who reviewed the case files released by city officials.

Law enforcement experts who reviewed the city’s 498-page report on the investigation at The Star’s request said it appeared detectives never considered that the shooting might not be justified.

Video shows the detectives who interviewed the shooting officer never pressed him for details. Ballistics information essential to the case was not made public and may not have been available to prosecutors.

The report, released last month by the City of Overland Park and billed as a “complete and thorough investigation,” included hundreds of pages of police reports, video interviews with officers at the scene and photos. But it was missing key information called for in the task force’s policy, such as a supervisor’s initial notes from the shooting officer and a scene reconstruction. Crime lab records, including a shooting reconstruction that detailed the bullet trajectories, were also not included.

In the days after the material was released, The Star had it examined by two forensic scientists, a criminal justice professor and Paul Morrison, the former Johnson County District Attorney.

All found the investigation lacked neutrality and was missing crucial information.

“Everyone just seemed to know what had happened, and had concluded already what had happened,” said Charles Wellford, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Maryland with an extensive background reviewing homicide cases.

“There were things they could have done if they were not convinced from the get-go that this was not a chargeable action.”

“A substantial amount of that report didn’t really even deal with the shooting,” Morrison said. “It dealt with John Albers and his juvenile problems. And that, in my mind, is usually a sign that maybe somebody’s not the most neutral.”

Morrison said reopening the case would be “the right thing to do.”

The release on April 29 of documents from the Albers investigation came as the City of Overland Park faced mounting pressure to release public records and answer questions about the January 2018 shooting. The city had already settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $2.3 million and had been forced by a judge to release a severance agreement that promised a $70,000 payout to the shooting officer, Clayton Jenison.

Jension, who fired 13 bullets at Albers after responding to the teen’s home on a welfare check and finding him backing a van out of the garage, was never charged in the shooting. He left the department soon after but still holds a valid peace officer’s license in Kansas.

Like other police shootings in Johnson County, the case was investigated by the Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team, or OISIT, a multi-agency task force drawn from local police departments and the sheriff’s office.

In the Albers case, that meant the Leawood, Olathe, Prairie Village, Merriam and Mission police departments, as well as the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

Officials at each of those agencies declined to answer questions or comment on this story.

Sean Reilly, spokesman for the City of Overland Park, defended the integrity of the investigation.

“The City has a great deal of respect for law enforcement investigators across Johnson County,” he said in an email Wednesday.

Reilly referred other questions to the office of District Attorney Steve Howe. This week, Kristi Bergeron, a spokeswoman for the office, said Howe was not available for comment but would provide information “in the near future.”

Since the release of the city’s report on the shooting, Sheila Albers, John’s mother, has used public records requests to obtain some of the missing records.

Those included a sheriff’s office lab report showing all the gunshots came from the side of the van John Albers was backing up, and a 3D reconstruction of the scene.

Sheila Albers said she was informed last week that the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, which is responsible for licensing police in the state, closed a complaint with no action against Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez.

The complaint, filed by Sheila Albers, alleged that Donchez committed perjury by reporting to the commission that Jenison left the department under normal circumstances. That was uncovered in March when a judge ordered the city to release the severance agreement in response to a public records lawsuit by The Star.

The severance agreement stipulated that the police department report Jenison’s resignation as voluntary and for personal reasons.

Permitting Jenison to resign under normal circumstances meant he could be hired by a different police department, especially since at the time his name had not been released.

The investigation of her son’s shooting, Sheila Albers said, illustrates how there are “two systems” at work in law enforcement.

“We have a system for civilians,” she said. “And we have a system for police officers.”

Former Johnson County DA

Paul Morrison was Johnson County’s district attorney in 2004 when the officer-involved shooting team was assembled. Its intention was to ensure independence during such investigations and has “worked fairly well” in the past, Morrison said.

But when Morrison saw the Albers report, he described it as “a little deficient.”

To begin with, he thought the investigation’s focus on the teenager’s past personal problems was excessive and inappropriate. The case file included numerous pages of John Albers’ personal journal.

If Albers had a history of violent felonies and conduct in his past, Morrison said, it might be different. Instead, he described it as “overkill.”

In part, the evidence showed John Albers was said to be suicidal and was injured when police were called on Jan. 20, 2018, to check on him.

But, as many of the experts noted, Jenison did not even know who was in the van when he fired 13 shots into it as the teen backed it out of the family’s driveway.

One month after the shooting, Howe announced no charges would be filed against the officer.

“I’m really comfortable saying that that’s not a good shoot,” Morrison said. “Whether it rises to the level of criminal or not, I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen, it’s not clean.”

The police department initially defended its policy on shooting at moving vehicles, but changed it two years after the shooting.

The policy now stipulates that officers will not shoot at or from a moving vehicle “unless someone inside the vehicle is using or threatening lethal force ... by means other than the vehicle itself.”

The only exception to this policy is when the suspect appears to be using a vehicle as a weapon of mass destruction in an act of terrorism.

Officer’s interview

The two detectives who interviewed Jenison after the shooting did not press him on details, said Brent Turvey, director of the Forensic Criminology Institute.

Turvey, who reviewed a recording of the interview at The Star’s request, said he was struck by how the detectives from the Leawood and Olathe police departments did not ask Jenison why he shot into a vehicle without knowing who or how many people were in it.

During the 46-minute interview, which included a 10-minute break, they never challenged him on why he did not move further from the minivan as Albers backed out of the driveway.

“You do not fire indiscriminately into a vehicle when you don’t know what’s in them,” Turvey said. “If you think the vehicle’s going to hit you, you move.”

Jenison was brought in by the detectives, both members of the OISIT team, four days after the shooting. Before he sat for the interview, he was allowed to review video of the incident.

Turvey said those were benefits not given to citizens.

“(Jenison) clearly had time to think, to respond, to develop and review the evidence,” Turvey said.

The questions the detectives asked were effective at establishing the officer’s day and his recollection of events. But Turvey said the whole interview was “extremely cordial.”

“There was no attempt whatsoever to put on the record any discussion of this officer’s context, history, home life, drug use,” he said. “Other things that you immediately ask if you were a criminal suspect, especially if you were a person of color.

“This is not a confrontational interview. It doesn’t actually result in any new information being gathered.”

In the interview, Jenison said he was running backward and believed the van was going to hit him.

But evidence not released by the city, and revealed later through public records requests, shows Jenison fired at the van from the side — not the rear.

Forensic science

The report released by the city in April did not include a crime lab report detailing the flight paths of the bullets or a 3D scan of the scene and the minivan.

That evidence is crucial to such investigations, said Patrick McLaughlin, a professor of forensic science with John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former officer with the New York City Police Department.

“I think most investigators, one of the first things they want to see is: ‘All right, you know, someone draw me a picture and put lines in it so I know what I’m looking at.’ The trajectories of the bullets are very, very key in a lot of people’s heads, in terms of trying to help with doing a determination.”

McLaughlin said he would hope such materials would be presented to and reviewed by the district attorney’s office before a charging decision was made. But it is not clear if that happened in the Albers case.

The lab report, obtained this month by Sheila Albers through a public records request, was dated March 7, 2018 — two weeks after Howe announced the shooting was justified.

It shows that all of the bullets Jenison fired struck the van from the side — not from the rear, where he might have been hit by the vehicle.

It is not known if Howe had access to the report or the scans before he announced the charging decision. His office has not responded to questions about if or when he received the information.

In reviewing the material the city did release, McLaughlin pointed to an apparent lack of lab reports and trace evidence findings — discovered by examining bullet fragments and looking for microscopic particles of things the bullet passed through, like glass or a seat cushion.

With the case file released by the city, McLaughlin said it does not appear possible to determine which of the 13 bullets struck Albers.

Was he hit by the first or second shot before the van he was driving sped up and moved erratically?

“That’s really, really hard to say, again, without having a lot more data in terms of accurate angles with the bullets going through,” he said.

Accountability

Wellford, at the University of Maryland, said much of the investigation seemed thorough: Evidence was collected and analyzed. Witnesses were found and interviewed. Video was obtained.

For him, the biggest question was how the evidence was applied to decisions about the shooting.

Did the investigators ever consider the possibility that the shooting might not be justified? How were the findings applied to charging considerations?

Some points in the investigation seemed lacking in thoroughness, he said.

The case file points to investigators seeking to set up an interview with the Albers family but not receiving a response before the investigation was completed, Wellford noted. The investigation moved quickly, as use-of-force-cases typically demand a swift response from the community, Wellford said.

But he questioned why that interview was apparently not performed before the investigation’s end.

“You’re torn between, we’ve got to do this quickly and get a response out to the community and maybe getting that interview,” Wellford said. “If it was more than that, I would like certainly like to know it. But if it was just that, then that’s understandable.”

He also described the interview between investigators and Jenison as “soft.” And he wonders if there may have been an agreement struck between Jenison’s attorney and the investigators setting a time limit.

As the interview with Jenison begins to wrap up, Wellford noticed a point at which Jenison’s attorney looks at his watch and then the lead investigator starts wrapping up by saying they only have a few remaining questions.

“That would be highly unusual,” Wellford said.

Wellford said the key for investigations is to ensure whoever is conducting them is competent and independent. There are options other states have taken up with use-of-force cases, he noted, such as having state law enforcement agencies lead those reviews.

“The more you can demonstrate independence, the more likely the community is going to accept the conclusions, whatever they are,” Wellford said.

“For me, independence, competency, credibility, those are the keys for however, you are going to set it up.”

Lauren Bonds, legal director of the National Police Accountability Project, said Johnson County taxpayers fund OISIT and are owed transparency.

“One of the objectives of the Officer-Involved Shooting Investigation Team is enhancing the integrity of the investigatory process,” she said.

“Public access to standards, guidelines, and operations ensures taxpayers can advocate for changes if investigation procedures are unfair or slanted. It also empowers the public to hold OISIT accountable when it deviates from its own standards.”

A public records lawsuit filed by the KSHB television station, seeking the full investigative records, is ongoing. An FBI investigation into the Albers shooting also continues.