The shooting of 17-year-old John Albers by an Overland Park police officer earlier this year has spurred local residents into action.
A new group called JoCo United is seeking to partner with area government and law enforcement to increase safety and ensure officers are prepared for crisis intervention, particularly in response to mental health issues. The group was started by Albers’ parents after John was shot and killed in January. The group conducted its first public meeting last week to rally support for its cause.
Doug Westerhaus, a board member of JoCo United, said that the advocacy group is definitely not anti-police. But they see the need for better training and collaboration to prevent situations like the shooting in January.
“Ultimately, numbers of us have come together to talk about what is a positive way we can interact with each other and with the community to help bring about meaningful change,” he said. “It’s not that I want to be ‘us versus them’ and against them. But boy, right now, I have concerns about calling the police department and asking for help if what reaction I end up with is somebody that is either out of control or was a bad hire or whatever that would take the action that I saw.”
Public reaction was mixed after the raw footage of Albers’ death was released in February. Westerhaus and other people on social media disagreed with the result of the investigation that concluded the police officer’s actions were justified. Albers parents’ ended up suing Overland Park police over the death.
“It appeared to me that it was not a justified shooting, and the fact that the prosecutor concluded that it was was really upsetting to me,” Westerhaus said.
Group establishes mission and vision
JoCo United leaders say the advocacy group has three goals. The first is to emphasize crisis intervention training for police officers, especially during calls related to mental illness.
Its second goal is to seek transparency in government. Westerhaus used an shooting in Lenexa last year of one example of police calling its own a “hero,” yet in other instances, agencies hesitate to release an officer’s name when his or her actions are called into question or being investigated.
“I think if we’re going to be in a position of saying to the public, ‘This guy’s a hero,’ then we also ought to be calling out when police make a mistake, be equally willing to talk about that,” Westerhaus said. “Maybe it’s our own fault as citizens, but we have tended to make heroes out of first responders without also holding them to the highest standard. It comes out as a question of, ‘Do we want warriors or guardians in uniform protecting us and serving us?’”
The group’s third goal is to seek universal policies for government and law enforcement officers regarding the other two pillars.
“I think it’s important to start with this universally agreed-upon perspective,” Westerhaus said. “No one there wants to be involved in bashing government, bashing the police in general, or just griping without trying to come forward with some sort of positive solutions or suggestions. That has been an overarching concern for all of us.”