OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Although the lawsuit has been settled, an Overland Park couple who’s son was shot and killed by police are still pushing for change.
On Jan. 20, 2018, 17-year-old John Albers was shot at 13 times by a police officer while backing out of his garage.
The Overland Park teen was home alone. He was threatening to hurt himself on social media and had cut himself with a knife. His friends called 911.
“It was really just an emotional struggle he was having,” said his mother, Sheila Albers.
The night John was killed, none of the officers who responded had training to deal with a person facing a mental health crisis.
“John should still be here. He should still be with us,” Sheila said. “We should be able to call 911 and expect to get help.”
A mandatory training?
Former Overland Park Police Officer Clayton Jenison was the first on scene and can be seen in dash cam video standing in the front yard with his gun unholstered.
The garage door at the Overland Park home went up. John’s van slowly backed up — and then numerous shots were fired.
“I think that shows a complete failure to train,” Sheila said. “I want to see change, so this doesn’t ever happen again.”
But when asked if CIT training, the specialized training to help officers respond to mental health crisis, should be mandatory for all officers, Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez said: “Absolutely not.”
“There’s no cookie cutter approach to responding to calls for mental health,” Donchez said.
CIT stands for crisis intervention team. It’s advanced specialist training and takes 40 hours to complete.
“The presumption that having more CIT-trained officers on the scene would have had a different outcome — they never even got the opportunity to engage with this individual,” Donchez said.
The sanctioning body of CIT, Crisis Intervention Training International, backs that stance.
“They point out in the material that it can be counterproductive if you force people to involuntary engage in CIT training,” Donchez said.
The organization’s report goes on to say the CIT International Board of Directors is working to examine a new 20-24 hour model in order to make recommendations in the near future.
Taking a different approach
There’s only one police department in the state of Kansas that mandates CIT training. It’s required to graduate from the police academy in Topeka.
“The more officers that understand mental health, the more officers understand how to work with an individual who lives with a mental health issue,” Topeka Police Sgt. Josh Klamm said when asked about the value of CIT-trained officers.
Klamm said the policy was implemented in 2012.
“The goal to deescalate is the goal that every police officer on every single call regardless if there is mental health or not,” Klamm said. “If we can calm the situation down by just talking, we can then have a conversation and then work toward solving a problem.”
FOX4 asked Klamm to take a look at the dash camera video the night John was killed. Although he was unable to comment on the specifics about the case, he was able to provide some insight based on his CIT experience.
“The first officer in the video that comes back to the car did one of the things that I really liked,” Klamm said. “He’s trying to find a phone number to contact John.”
Klamm said the first goal is always to deescalate the situation and try to make contact via phone. FOX4 asked about knocking on the door.
“Going up and knocking on the door potentially creates a new situation, a new hazard. What would you do if John opened the door with a knife?” Klamm said.
Remember, the initial call was that John had a knife.
“One of the fears if I’m responding to a suicide call, especially with someone who’s armed with either a gun or a knife, something like that, is: Are they going to try a suicide by cop technique?” Klamm said.
He said knocking on a door in a mental health response could potentially put an officer’s life at risk.
As for Jenison’s gun being unholstered: “Given the fact that he was responding to an armed individual, that’s not unreasonable at all,” Donchez said.
A growing crisis
The Overland Park police chief said the number of mental health-related calls continues to grow year after year.
“The Overland Park Police Department averages seven calls a day that are in some, way, shape or form, mental health-related,” he said.
But some see that statistic as a sign that more training is needed.
“If seven calls every day are coming in and you’re kind of rolling the dice as to who is going to get them, you need to make sure those officers have appropriate training,” said Mark Schmid, a board member of JOCO United.
JOCO United is an advocacy group that was formed in 2018 after John’s death.
“We are not anti-police,” Schmid said. “We simply want to make sure that everyone who is serviced by the police is safe.”
The group is made up of concerned citizens looking to build positive relationships with local government, law enforcement and the community.
“We want to promote positive change to bring about better responses, better outcomes in mental health situations,” Schmid said.
He said, just like in Topeka, there needs to be more training at the academy level in Overland Park. Currently only 8 hours of mental health training are offered in Johnson County.
“If they are better trained to deal with the mentally ill, they are going to be safer in doing their job,” Schmid said.
Donchez feels that Johnson County is way ahead when it comes to training its officers.
“Are there going to be bumps in the road? Are there going to be incidents that are not what we want? Sure,” he said. “But I think that as a county and as a city we’re doing as much as we can do.”
District Attorney Steve Howe echoes Donchez in saying Overland Park police officers are trained to meet the highest standards in the industry, and he noted the county has a co-responder program.
“We recognize the importance of getting officers trained, and I think we do a pretty good job at trying to do that,” Howe said.
Both said the biggest problem is the lack of state funding for mental health response.
“The crisis is becoming bigger, and the resources are becoming less,” Donchez said. “There’s been a failure on society’s part to address these issues because again, it shouldn’t come to the point where an officer is on your front driveway dealing with it.”
The Overland Park Police Department is made up of 243 officers. Of that, less than half, 112 are CIT trained.
“There is still so much work that has to be done,” Sheila Albers said. “No parent should plan their child’s funeral. I had his graduation party planned in my head. Not his funeral.”
FOX4 reached out to Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Kansas State Sen. Barbara Bollier about state funding for mental health training and response.
Bollier is investigating CIT training and told FOX4 she will evaluate if the state needs changes in its use in Kansas. The governor said she has always been a longtime supporter of expanding mental health services and is looking at ways to improve all areas of mental health.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, we urge you to get help immediately.
Go to a hospital, call 911 or call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).
Click on the boxes below for our FOX 4 You Matter reports and other helpful phone numbers and resources.