JoCo District Attorney candidates on the issues: Public trust in police shooting investigations

Albers severance

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for office address ahead of November’s general election. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for Johnson County District Attorney.

We’ll be publishing the candidates’ responses to one item per day each day this week. Today we’re publishing the candidates’ responses to item #1:

After teenager John Albers was shot and killed by Overland Park police officer Clayton Jennison in 2018, Jennison was cleared of wrongdoing and received a severance package from the city of Overland Park. However, the city later settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Albers’ family for $2.3 million. This has attracted intense scrutiny of the process for investigating officer-involved shootings. What do Johnson County and law-enforcement agencies here need to do to ensure the public trusts investigations of police shootings?

Steve Howe (incumbent Republican)

These are tragic situations and since 2005 Johnson County has used an independent unit called the Officer Involved Shooting Incident Team (OISIT) to investigate officer involved shootings. Nationally this is deemed the preferred method of conducting this type of investigation. This avoids the involved agency investigating one of their own. Another positive step was the acquisition of body cameras by all Johnson County law enforcement agencies. These two factors help build faith in the process of the investigations. Once they complete their investigation it is submitted to my office. My office then takes the evidence and applies it to Kansas law to determine if it was a proper use of force. A written report is produced that sets forth the facts and legal standards that were used in determining if the use of force was permitted by law. I also invite the affected families to my office to present my findings and answer any questions they may have. If there are body camera or in car camera videos of the incident they are also made available to the family. The written report and any videos are also made available to the public and in some instances a press conference is held to answer questions from the press. By taking these steps Johnson County has worked hard to build the public’s trust in the investigative process.

Zach Thomas (Democrat)

Transparency. There can be no public trust without transparency on this issue. In 2005, then District Attorney Paul Morrison started the Officer Involved Shooting Incident Team that Johnson County utilizes to investigate use of force situations. That independent team investigates an event and then submits their reports and findings to the District Attorney. The District Attorney is responsible for making a decision regarding whether the shooting was justified, or alternatively, whether to file a criminal case. Just as importantly, the District Attorney must explain the decision to the public in a clear and transparent manner.

The issue in the John Albers case is that following Steve Howe’s determination that the shooting was justified, he released a statement that was contradicted by video evidence, and later, by a civil court. The Albers family has repeatedly requested to see the investigative reports to gain insight into why Steve Howe made the decision that the shooting was justified, given the evidence released calls into question that decision. Steve Howe has refused. The $2,300,000 settlement with the Albers family, along with the recently announced FBI investigation into the shooting, further calls into account Steve Howe’s transparency and veracity in his explanation regarding the shooting. This lack of transparency erodes public trust in our criminal justice system.

I will make decisions based on the available evidence and be transparent in my decision-making process. While it may not be necessary to release all information to the public, it is vital that sufficient and persuasive evidence is released to account for the decision that was made. While meeting with a victim’s family is pivotal, the structure of the meetings under the current DA have been questionable. Why schedule the first and only contact with the victim’s family less than an hour before a press conference which cleared the officer of wrongdoing? The family had no opportunity to digest the information given to them prior to the public seeing the footage. Simple human decency must be used in addressing the families of victims.

Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item #2:

The Black Lives Matter movement has focused on the actions of police departments and their relationships with minority communities. What is the appropriate role for the District Attorney’s office to guarantee equitable justice in Johnson County?