LPKS Candidate Recruitment Director Matt Clark has lived in the Kansas City area since 2011, and currently resides in Overland Park with his wife and daughter. Below, he weighs in on a recent news feature with local interest, as well as concern and compassion for liberty principles.
The shooting death of John Albers in my own city in 2018 was a major wake up call, and a motivating event in my decision to get involved in public affairs. The Washington Post recently brought national attention to the case by conducting an in-depth review of the Johnson County investigation of the killing, which is currently under investigation by the FBI.
[Update: The FBI declined to file charges against the officer who killed John Albers. The FBI “noted the department’s decision that it could not bring charges against the officer who killed John Albers does not alter the fact that his loss was an unnecessary tragedy, and should not be read as anything more than a determination that the department cannot prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, every element of the federal criminal statute to include willfulness.”]
The Washington Post report was made possible because of the relentless efforts from the Albers family and many others, which resulted in the complete case file being released to the public. I believe we owe the family and all involved a debt of gratitude for those difficult efforts to achieve greater transparency.
Sheila Albers, John’s mother, is quoted in the Shawnee Mission Post summarizing the FBI investigation: “We cannot ignore the underlying theme of the DOJ’s statement: local officials failed in their investigation, failed to bring viable state charges, and ignored the fact that a jury could definitely find that the officer used unreasonable force — a conclusion that the DOJ ‘found no substantial evidence inconsistent with that conclusion.’ “
If you are not familiar with this incident, 17-year-old John Albers was shot and killed by Overland Park Police while backing a minivan out of his garage. The police had responded to calls from friends of John reporting he was posting suicidal messges on social media. The City of Overland Park settled a multimillion dollar wrongful death lawsuit with the Albers family and paid the officer who killed John a $70,000 severance while allowing him to resign.
I remember being shocked to hear the officer who killed John was cleared of wrongdoing only a month after the shooting. Then I was dumbfounded at that conclusion when the dashcam footage was played. I saw a kid slowly backing a minivan out of a garage (no more than 2.5 mph according to the WaPo report) with a police officer stepping behind the van and yelling at him to stop. The officer then steps out of the way of the vehicle and fires twice. The van then erratically makes a “J” turn at the end of the driveway back towards the officer who steps out of the way again before firing the rest of his magazine into the van.
It seems clear to me John did not “perform a J maneuver” as the District Attorney Steve Howe insists, but that the van was out of control because John was badly hit by one of the first two bullets. It seemed the shooting was entirely unnecessary. Finally, it seemed that the officer placed himself in danger by stepping into the path of the van, and then caused the van to move out of control by shooting the driver, which then placed him in even greater danger before shooting the driver again.
Imagine you are walking through the grocery store parking lot and someone starts to back a car out of a spot. The driver does not see that you’re about to walk behind their car. Imagine you step in that car’s path and yell “STOP STOP” while retreating out of the path of that car and then shoot the driver. Imagine how quickly you would be thrown in jail and charged with murder or manslaughter. Why didn’t that happen with the officer in this case?
The Washington Post article reviewed all of the case files and presented them to detectives from around the country who found major flaws and biases in this investigation. Johnson County has a good officer-involved shooting policy, at least on paper. A multijurisdictional team made up of detectives from outside the involved department presumably helps eliminate conflict of interest
However, the team that investigated this shooting was shockingly biased toward the officer. Their investigation lasted only six days. It focused heavily on John Albers’ background which had almost no effect on how the officers responded that night. The investigation only interviewed the officers involved once. It failed to include information and diagrams that are typically included in this type of investigation. The investigation never seemed to waiver from the notion that this was a “good shoot,” despite overwhelming or unexamined evidence to the contrary.
The video by the Washington Post is a much needed comprehensive review. I encourage everyone to take the time to watch it. Be advised it shows the killing from multiple camera angles and 3D re-creation.
What do we do with this information? What changes can we push for?
I welcome feedback, public or private, on solutions for Overland Park, Johnson County and Kansas as a whole on what can be changed to ensure this type of shooting or biased investigation never happens again.
I support city, county, or statewide bans or severe restrictions on shooting at moving vehicles by law enforcement. Shooting at a vehicle that is a threat does not stop the vehicle from moving on its threatening path. At best, it only injures or kills the driver leaving the vehicle to continue in an uncontrolled and unpredictable manner.. Most policies that stop short of a ban would have prohibited this shooting and trained officers on better ways to handle similar situations.
I believe neither Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez nor District Attorney Steve Howe deserve to hold their current jobs. Qualified immunity reform or abolition on the state or federal level will also help deter unnecessary escalation by law enforcement. Requiring individual law enforcement liability insurance policies is an idea worth exploring to price bad actors out of the field.
I struggle with what to do about the investigation. On paper, the Johnson County Officer Involved Shooting Team (OSIT) is one of the best possible policies to investigate police shootings. But it clearly failed in this case. Should Johnson County police shootings be handled by the Highway Patrol or a team from a neighboring county? Should there be civilian oversight of OSIT by a board or by the County Commission?
It is clear change needs to be made in Overland Park and Johnson County. The citizens deserve better than sham investigations. John Albers certainly deserved not to lose his life.
To effect change, we need to better organize libertarians in Overland Park and Johnson County to build coalitions with police reform groups, other concerned groups and citizens to be that change. If you want to get involved, reach out at Matt.Clark@LPKS.org. I look forward to hearing from you!
For questions about this article, or to access more sources on the investigation, email LPKS Communications Director Allison Ross at communications@LPKS.org.