Court Orders Overland Park To Hand Over Records In Police Killing Of Teenager
The city had refused to turn over a severance agreement with the officer who shot and killed 17-year-old John Albers in 2018.
In a major victory for The Kansas City Star, a Johnson County judge has ruled that Overland Park must turn over its severance agreement with the police officer who shot and killed 17-year-old John Albers as he was backing out of his driveway in 2018.
The city had denied The Star’s request for the agreement under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), arguing it is not an “employment-related agreement” subject to disclosure under the law.
In a six-page ruling Thursday, Judge Rhonda K. Mason rejected the city’s argument.
“The Court finds no legal authority suggesting that a public agency can avoid turning over a document under KORA by simply disclosing some of the information contained in the document,” Mason wrote.
Overland Park has acknowledged paying Officer Clayton Jenison $70,000 in severance but declined to disclose the terms of the agreement. Jenison resigned from the department not long after he shot Albers.
Albers’ mother, Sheila Albers, called Mason’s ruling “a huge win for sunshine and transparency,” but said it was “also appalling that it took such monumental efforts to get Overland Park” to follow the Kansas Open Records Act.
“Overland Park’s handling of John’s death has been horrid since the night he was killed,” she said in an email. “Hiding the facts and evidence relevant to the night John was killed jeopardizes public safety and erodes the public’s trust in our local government.”
The Star’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, said the court’s ruling “reaffirms what we have known for years – that severance agreements are open records under Kansas law. Just ask Les Miles, whose severance agreement was made public the same day it was finalized.”
Miles, the now former head football coach at the University of Kansas, parted ways with the university 10 days ago after sexual misconduct allegations stemming from his tenure as coach at Louisiana State University became public. The Star obtained a copy of his severance agreement from KU the very same day it asked for it.
A nine-month wait
By contrast, The Star sought Overland Park’s severance agreement with Jenison on June 30, 2020, nearly nine months ago. After the city denied its request, The Star sued the city in October.
An Overland Park spokesman said the city did not have an immediate comment on Mason’s ruling because it was still considering its response. The city has the option of appealing the ruling.
Earlier this year, KSHB-TV Channel 41 sued Overland Park seeking to force it to disclose the complete files of its investigation into the shooting. That case is pending before a different judge.
In her ruling in The Star case, Mason said that perhaps the strongest argument against adopting the city’s position was that it would prevent the public from knowing how their tax dollars were being spent.
“One of the fundamental concepts behind Kansas’ open records law is to provide for transparency and accountability in government,” Mason wrote. “If an agency felt that these types of agreements were not subject to disclosure what incentive would there be to use tax dollars responsibly if the amount would never be disclosed?”
Albers was shot on Jan. 20, 2018, after Overland Park police responded to a call that he was suicidal. The teenager was alone at home at the time, and when police arrived he began backing a minivan out of the house’s garage. Jenison fired twice at the vehicle and then, after it made a U-turn, fired 11 more times. Six of the bullets hit Albers, killing him.
A month later, the Johnson County District Attorney announced that no charges would be filed against Jenison, who at that point had not been identified by name. But federal authorities have since initiated a civil rights investigation into the shooting. The investigation is pending.
In January 2019, Overland Park paid Albers’ parents $2.3 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit they had filed against the city and Jenison.