Feds open civil rights investigation into Kansas teen killed by police during wellness check

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The family of John Albers has long questioned the police narrative that the officer had no choice but to draw his weapon in the 2018 shooting.

JAN. 20, 201801:18Sept. 24, 2020, 5:07 PM CDT / Updated Sept. 24, 2020, 5:51 PM CDTBy Erik Ortiz

Federal authorities have opened a civil rights investigation into the fatal police shooting of a Kansas teenager who was backing out of the family’s garage when an officer — responding to a call for a wellness check — fired 13 times.

The FBI will “collect all available facts and evidence and will ensure that the investigation is conducted in a fair, thorough and impartial manner,” a spokeswoman told NBC News in a statement Thursday. The agency’s Kansas City, Missouri, field office is working with the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

The FBI did not comment further about the reason for and focus of the review, citing the ongoing investigation.

The killing of John Albers, 17, in January 2018 brought the national outcry over police use of excessive force to the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park.

Image: John Albers
John Albers in a family photo.Courtesy of Sheila Albers

After his death, Albers’ family sought answers for what led to the shooting and even for the name of the officer who killed him, which they quickly learned was a struggle because of the state’s restrictive public records laws, including for police documents.

A month after the shooting of Albers, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe announced an official investigation determined the officer, who said he feared for his life, was justified in his actions. At the time, Howe and Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez said the officer resigned from the police force before administrative action could be taken.

The name of the officer, Clayton Jenison, was only confirmed publicly by officials after an attorney for the Albers family uncovered it for a civil lawsuit filed in April 2018 against the officer and the police department.

Albers’ mother, Sheila Albers, said she welcomes the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office investigation, and hopes it will “shed light on what Overland Park and our DA have been able to keep hidden.”

The opening of an investigation “highlights the failure of Overland Park and District Attorney Steve Howe to be transparent in their investigations and be accountable to their constituents,” she added.

Sean Reilly, a spokesman for the city of Overland Park, said officials will “fully cooperate … just as we cooperated with the investigations conducted by the Johnson County District Attorney’s office and the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards.”

Overland Park police did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

On the night Albers was killed, his family had gone out to dinner. Police were called to the home for a wellness check after a friend was concerned that Albers may have been intoxicated and feeling suicidal and had threatened to stab himself with a knife, according to Sheila Albers and the federal complaint filed by the family.

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, was about to reverse out.

It was then, as the minivan backed out slowly and in a straight line, that Jenison reacted, aiming his weapon and yelling, “Stop, stop, stop.” In a second, 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.

A toxicology report indicated that Albers had not been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Howe, in announcing his decision not to charge the officer in 2018, said “these are fluid and instantaneous decisions that a law enforcement officer must make, which makes the job so difficult.”

The family ended up settling with Overland Park in 2019 for $2.3 million, The Washington Post reported, although the city did not admit liability and said it settled to avoid the cost and length of the litigation.

But Sheila Albers has long questioned the police narrative that Jenison had no choice but to draw his weapon because he was in immediate danger.

In June, city officials confirmed that Jenison received $70,000 as part of a severance package when he agreed to resign, an amount paid despite the fact the prosecutor’s office 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 to the force because there was “no just cause to terminate” him and avoid a costly lawsuit. Officials also said Chief Donchez never communicated with Jenison about the agreement nor encouraged him to enter into it.

Efforts to reach Jenison were unsuccessful Thursday.

Sheila Albers said she’s hoping for more transparency out of the federal investigation after officials “disseminated a false narrative, cleared the officer of wrongdoing in record time and structured a severance payout to the officer that killed John.”

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