JoCo mom, state rep are pushing for more transparency around officer-involved shootings, but some leaders say they have concerns

Police Chief Tom Hongslo has raised concerns about releasing personal and sensitive information from investigations into  officer-related shootings. File photo.

A Johnson County mother whose son was killed by an Overland Park police officer in 2018 is lobbying for more transparency when it comes to investigations into officer-involved shootings in Kansas.

But a local law enforcement leader says he has concerns with the idea of publicly identifying officers who have been cleared of wrongdoing in such cases.

Sheila Albers, whose son John was shot and killed by Overland Park police officer Clayton Jenison two years ago, is supporting HB 2424, a bill introduced by state Rep. David Benson, whose district is primarily in Overland Park. It would allow for the release of records in an officer-related shooting that results in the death of a person — but only if no criminal charges are filed against the officer.

At a city council meeting last month, Lenexa city staff and police raised concerns about the bill. While Lenexa hasn’t taken an official position, city leaders at a council meeting last month discussed concerns with releasing information about police officers who are not charged. At the meeting Jan. 7, Mayor Michael Boehm asked Police Chief Tom Hongslo to share why the city would oppose a portion of the bill that calls for the release of records. Hongslo said that if the bill becomes law, he had concerns that personal information about his officers could be connected with information released in the reports.

“That report would be open to the public,” Hongslo said of his concerns about the bill.

Boehm said making information in an officer-involved shooting public could result in “ramifications” on a police officer and his/her family.

“Some things are just best left out,” Boehm said.

‘I fail to see the disadvantage to transparency’

Sheila Albers, an Overland Park mom whose son was shot by police two years ago, is pushing legislation that would allow more details to be released from investigations into officer-involved shootings.

Albers has a different take on it on the proposal. She notes that the bill “clearly states that personal information [about the officers involved] will be protected. Names and personal information would be redacted.”

As an advocate for the bill, she argues that increased transparency in these situations could ultimately benefit police officers.

“If in fact the officer did need to use lethal force, that information will back that officer’s decision,” she said. “I would encourage not just Lenexa but any city government to take the time to read why transparency is important and where the state of Kansas could make some really big, important improvements. We are missing an important opportunity in Kansas to improve transparency, trust and public safety.”

The bill also calls for impartiality when investigating officer-involved shootings. Like other police departments in Johnson County, the Lenexa Police Department says it already has a process in place designed to assure impartiality. For example, when an officer-involved shooting occurred in November 2019, Lenexa police called in Johnson County Multi-Jurisdictional Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team and then stepped out so that the investigation would remain impartial. That team includes detectives and commanders from police departments across the county.

Albers said the only missing piece by law enforcement agencies in Johnson County is the release of records when no charges are filed against an officer so that people understand how the district attorney reached a decision.

“That builds transparency and trust because government entities such as law enforcement or city governments are held accountable when lethal force is used,” Albers said, noting that law enforcement agencies in Missouri already have this level of transparency on the books. “I fail to see the disadvantage to transparency when surrounding communities have already taken that step.”

Denise Rendina, spokesperson for Lenexa, said the city has not taken an official position on the bill, but is “watching the bill with interest.”

Also, the bill is not specifically mentioned in Lenexa’s 2020 legislative platform, but the city did note that it supports “the current structure of open records requests through the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Hongslo said officer-involved shootings in Lenexa have occurred roughly once a year since 2013. One example is the shooting at Costco by an off-duty officer from Kansas City, Kansas in 2017.

Lenexa supporting increased funding for mental health services

Lenexa city staff Mike Nolan said the city will advocate for more state funding for mental health services, which will help emergency responders in the city.

Another key component of Lenexa’s legislative platform is to support additional state funding to mental health services and programs. Lenexa’s platform also urges the state to adopt rules and regulations that are needed to establish regional Crisis Stabilization Centers envisioned by the 2017 Crisis Intervention Act.

“It’s one of the sorest needs in Johnson County; you can tell through our budget process we added a mental health co-responder this year,” said Mike Nolan, assistant to the city administrator, citing the increase in calls by emergency personnel to respond to people in mental health crises. “We are making contacts with individuals more and more who are in need of some sort of mental health intervention and these crisis stabilization centers… are going to be integral to that response.”

The Lenexa council voted 7-0 to approve the city’s legislative platform last month.