Overland Park Wards 1 and 2 city council candidates on the issues: police transparency

John Albers Vehicle

Overland Park Wards 1 and 2 city council candidates weigh in on police transparency and accountability, specifically as it relates to the way the city police department handled the John Albers case. Albers, 17, was shot and killed by an Overland Park police officer in 2018. Image courtesy OISIT report.

Editor’s Note

Today’s question for Overland Park mayoral and city council candidates deals with the 2018 fatal police shooting of teenager John Albers. That incident remains an emotional topic for many of our readers, but we feel it’s important to hear directly from those who would hold power in Overland Park about how they feel such weighty circumstances should be handled. You can read the Post’s latest coverage on the investigation into Albers’ killing here and here.

 

— Kyle Palmer, Editor

In early June, the Shawnee Mission Post asked readers for input on questions for candidates vying for seats in the upcoming election season. Based on that input, the Post developed a questionnaire for candidates running for Overland Park city council seats.

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

The Overland Park police department has faced ongoing criticism and scrutiny over how it handled Officer Clayton Jenison shooting and killing teenager John Albers in 2018. Last September, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation on the matter, which is still ongoing. The city recently released the Johnson County Officer Involved Shooting Team’s report on the incident after months of public outcry. Do you agree with how the police department and city have handled this issue to date? If not, what should have been done differently? How should the city handle the issue of police transparency and accountability going forward?

Overland Park City Council Ward 1

Michael Czerniewski

As a former security officer, I was trained to write reports on such incidents right away for independent review. The police – which are effectively a publicly funded security force – should be no different. Police incident reports should be made available to the public. I am also a firm believer in having cameras on sight to record such incidents. If it is in the police budget, I would also push for body cameras for this purpose.

Logan Heley (incumbent)

John Albers was killed by an Overland Park Police Officer just days after I was sworn into office on the City Council. John should still be with us.

After the shooting, the City followed the policies and procedures that were in place for a fatal officer-involved shooting. I believe it is apparent that a large portion of our community, myself included, believe that those policies and procedures were too slow and insufficient in seeking justice for John Albers.

I support a demographically-diverse Community Oversight Board for policing that has real power. We need a system that the community trusts. I’m committed to taking action to move that reform forward.

Additionally, I support the recommendations that came from our city’s Mental Health Taskforce this spring. The proposed 2022 City Budget includes funding to create a Behavioral Health Unit in our police department as recommended by the Mental Health Taskforce. Creation of the Behavioral Health Unit will provide a 24/7 CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) officer and Co-Responder response in the City of Overland Park and will provide greater coverage to respond to mental health related calls for service.

As social services funding has dwindled at the state and federal level over the past several decades, our police officers, firefighters, and school teachers have been asked, inappropriately in my view, to go above and beyond in meeting the social and mental health needs of our communities, often in emergency situations. In addition to the mental health improvements our city is making for our own employees and our service to the public, we also need our state and federal government to start taking mental health and social services seriously again, providing the resources our community needs and deserves.

Carol Merritt

I believe the investigation and the FBI have facts I don’t have. All the public has is TV video and comment. Therefore, I will give my limited assessment. The whole incident was extremely unfortunate and sad. The Albers boy was wrong to try to back over a policeman. The policeman yelled “stop, stop” fearing for his life. It looks like the policeman was in danger of being killed. It appeared to be dark and possibly the boy and the policeman had limited sight. My question is, “where were the parents?” Why didn’t they intervene? What was said on social media that made the police check up on the teen? Did the boy have mental problems? Was he using drugs that impaired his judgement and made him violent? Did he have a weapon? I know a car can be used as a lethal weapon. With limited facts, I would be hesitant to make a statement and appear to be misinformed. As I am deeply thinking about this, there are many unanswered questions. The police force is trying to do their best and I hear they are trying to correct this from happening ever again. Now they are sending mental health professionals with the police to guide and help. We have weeks and months day and night to scrutinize the facts. The police have .03 seconds to make a life or death decision. Therefore, I believe this was an unfortunate incident that was humanly impossible to control. May God comfort all involved and give peace and forgiveness to broken hearts.

Ryan Spencer

I can’t begin to understand what the Albers family had to endure throughout this needlessly extended process. The city should have been open and upfront with the family and public starting day one, so no, I don’t agree with how it was handled. The whole incident was a terrible set of events in which I don’t believe anyone set out to intentionally hurt anyone but ended in tragedy. Based on the information I have heard and seen, Officer Jenison was in the wrong and reacted incorrectly. At the same time, John Albers obviously had a history of issues with the department and hopefully some of these mental health task force recommendations will be able to prevent another incident like this in the future. I 100% back our first responders when they do their job correctly and want to give them all of the resources to do so, but this was unfortunately not one of those cases. I’m of the mindset that every employee of the government is an employee of the people, and as such, deserve to know what those employees are doing at all times. I understand a lot of what the police deal with on a daily basis is sensitive in nature but for incidents like this, the public needs to know that they can trust their lawmakers and law-enforcers to provide a thorough and transparent investigation from day one.

Overland Park City Council Ward 2

Melissa Cheatham

The death of John Albers was a tragedy. As a mother to two boys of my own, it is a nightmare to imagine a call to help a child resulting in his being killed. This tragic event exposed a number of opportunities to improve safety and trust in our community.

First, the Overland Park Police Department had an outdated use of force policy, which has since been revised to instruct officers to walk away rather than shoot at moving vehicles. Second, I believe the incident revealed that our current system for investigating officer misconduct is not working. Neither residents nor, apparently, city staff were satisfied with the outcome of a process that would have allowed Officer Jennison to continue serving. We need a truly independent system that does not give the impression of local officers protecting their own. We need accountability so that all residents know they can trust the system.

Further, I believe the public has a right to understand what their government is doing to the greatest extent possible, even amidst difficult circumstances like an officer killing a child. I would advocate for a culture of transparency and disclosure. The city should release documents without being compelled to do so, unless there is a clear legal imperative to withhold them. If we want residents to engage in crafting the vision of our community and support robust local government, we need to operate with transparency. As an elected official I would conduct myself with integrity and would welcome the opportunity for the public to see my service in action. I expect the same of city staff.

Tony Medina

The death of John Albers was a tragedy, one that may be avoided in the future with increased officer training and mental health collaboration such as an expansion of the crisis intervention team (CIT), which the mental health task force recently recommended. John and Sheila Albers have courageously led a fight for transparency and accountability since losing their son, and I support them. I do not agree with providing Clayton Jenison a severance package and feel the City should have publicly released the details in 2018. It also should not have required a lawsuit and a judge’s ruling for the City to release the OISIT report. I would be supportive of establishing a community police review board to increase transparency, accountability, diversity and resident engagement with our police department.

Roger Tarbutton

The Albers incident was a tragic event for which I extend my utmost condolences to the family. In response to this tragedy, positive steps are being taken to prevent reoccurrence such as increased mental health training and back-up for police officers. Although better communication should have been maintained with the Albers family, much of the investigation was conducted by outside agencies over which the city had little control. During my prior employment with Johnson County Government, I often responded to open record requests.  Although the Kansas Open Records statute includes numerous exceptions where disclosure is not required such as the disclosure of security systems in public buildings, it was intended to encourage the release of public documents and not shield them from disclosure. If elected, I will encourage staff to interpret and apply the open record statute in accordance with that intent.

Tomorrow, we will publish the candidates’ responses to question #3:

Climate change continues to be top of mind for many of our readers. What steps can Overland Park take to prepare Overland Park neighborhoods for increased flooding, along with extreme heat and drought events? What steps would you like to see the city take to build climate resilience?