It had not been a good day for John Albers. The 17-year-old Overland Park teen had ADHD, and occasionally went through extreme ups and downs. It was January 20, 2018, and he told his parents he didn’t want to go out to dinner with the family that night.
“So we left the house and John obviously went to a really dark place very, very quickly,” his mom, Sheila Albers, said.
“He did what I think a lot of teenagers do. He reached out on social media, and I think it was a cry for help."
His friends called 911. Albers still believes that was the right thing to do, even after what happened next — something she never could have imagined.
“We left the house at about 5:10 and John was dead by 5:50,” she said.
Within minutes of arriving, Officer Clayton Jenison shot the teen 13 times as he was backing out of the garage.
“If you were there to prevent a suicide, why would you draw your gun?” Albers said.
It’s been almost two years since that night. A lot has changed for the Overland Park Police Department since then. But for Albers, it’s not enough — even after she and her family reached a $2.3 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.
“The settlement does nothing to change the process or protect the public. It's not a win. It's a way to make us go away,” she said.
It’s not over
Since January 2018, the Overland Park Police Department has implemented body cameras for every uniformed officer and added a second full-time co-responder — a certified mental health professional on hand to respond to crisis calls with officers as needed.
Though Police Chief Frank Donchez declined to comment, city spokesperson Meg Ralph told KCUR mental health has always been a priority for the police department.
Johnson County Police Academy Director Ken Sissom, who has an extensive background serving for law enforcement agencies in Kansas, said Johnson County is leading the way when it comes to mental health awareness and services at police departments.
“With the police, with (Johnson County Mental Health Center), with co-responders, we have systems in place that put us in the top four or five areas in the United States. So, we’re as prepared as we can be,” Sissom said.
Last fall, Albers helped form an advocacy group called JOCO United to call for more transparency between Johnson County police and the communities they serve, and better mental health services.
So far, the Overland Park Police Department has been pretty responsive to their demands. It added a web page on mental health services, and the Johnson County Police Academy nearly doubled mental health and de-escalation training hours for recruits.
Another demand was increased crisis intervention training. Right now just half of the nearly 250 officers are trained. According to Officer Justin Shepherd, police are always dealing with mental health issues.
“Every single day, every single shift,” he said.
Shepherd runs the crisis intervention or CIT program.
“It'd be great if we could make sure that those CIT officers would be the ones responding to every single call related to it, but it's not necessarily the case,” he said.
The training isn’t required, and it will remain that way. But, he said the entire department took 8 hours of mental health first aid training for five days straight in February 2018, just a few weeks after an officer shot and killed John Albers during a welfare check.
Shepherd declined to comment on Albers’ death. But, he said, in general, there’s no question that CIT training helps officers respond properly.
“The greatest misstep would just be not being able to identify the potential to help in that incident,” Shepherd said.
Up for debate
There’s one demand that’s still up for debate, one that Donchez has declined to comment on — a public safety community advisory board. It wouldn’t govern the police, but it would make recommendations and gain insight into policing practices.
In September, the Overland Park Public Safety Committee held a meeting dedicated to mental health, and members of JOCO United asked for a community advisory board.
City councilmember Paul Lyons, who chairs the committee, told KCUR he’s not convinced there’s a need for it — as is, he said, there are three advisory boards that provide oversight and advice to the police and fire departments, handle citizen complaints about racial profiling and bias, and review disciplinary actions.
Wednesday night, Lyons will propose a mental health task force at the committee meeting.
But Albers said that’s not enough.
Police reform expert Emily Gunston with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs said that community advisory boards can be a great tool.
“One of the critical aspects of police accountability is ensuring that the police department is responsive to community concerns and is co-producing public safety with the community that it serves,” Gunston said.
A month after Albers was killed, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe ruled the shooting was justified. But to this day, Albers said the DA has not made the investigative reports into the shooting public. And, it was only after the family sued that the officer’s name was released.
“I don't think it has to be that way,” Gunston said. “I think communities can push back on that. Police departments can provide far more information to the public than they currently do.”
This is bigger than John
Pushing back is exactly what Sheila Albers set out to do for her first son, who she still remembers bringing home from Minsk, Belarus, when he was 18 months old.
"You know, he gave me the greatest gift I could have ever gotten," she said. "I got to be a mom."
Now, without him, she’s fighting for change, but not just for him or her community. She knows hiring a good lawyer and reaching a settlement is unusual in fatal police shootings.
“I know that there are so many people who've experienced the same loss that I have and have nothing. And absolutely nothing happens,” she said.
With her resources, she wants to fight to set a precedent and keep this from happening to any family.
“This is bigger than John. This is bigger than Overland Park,” she said.
But for now, with the city’s Public Safety Committee set to discuss a mental health task force instead of a community advisory board tonight, Albers' work is far from over.