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A mother’s quest for openness provides map for spurring change

When Sheila Albers couldn’t get answers to the questions she had after her 17-year-old son was shot and killed by an Overland Park police officer while the teen was in the midst of a mental health crisis, she didn’t give up. Instead, she kept pushing, using open records laws to unearth information that shed new light on aspects of the case, mobilized residents and helped change the ways that the city responds to incidents involving people facing mental health challenges. Her story shows how everyday people, not just journalists, can leverage public records to shape communities for the better.

Sheila Albers strode into the Johnson County sheriff’s office, buzzed for help and slid her typed open records request into a metal tray, which the attendant pulled back through the protective window.

The worker looked at Albers, read the letter, and glanced up again. “Hold on,” she said. She returned with another woman, who wrote a case number on a sticky note, and then told Albers that the city of Overland Park had the information she wanted. Not true, Albers said. The city had already told her it did not have the records, so she slid the request back through the window.

The second woman then fetched the records division supervisor, who noted that the Kansas Open Records Act provides a grace period for the department to respond. Three days later, Albers returned, paid $25 for a flash drive and had her information.

The data she collected that day, in May of last year, included the trajectory report of the 13 bullets Overland Park police officer Clayton Jenison had fired in January 2018, when he shot and killed Albers’ son, John, as the 17-year-old backed the family minivan out of the garage. 

Dispatchers had sent Jenison and other officers to check on the welfare of the teen, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest High School, after friends called 911 to report he had apparently stabbed himself while talking about suicide on social media. 

The exchange at the sheriff’s office illustrates the doggedness with which Albers pursued information regarding her son’s death, transforming her from a middle school principal into a government accountability bulldog. 

Challenging authority is never easy, but Albers has demonstrated that intervening skillfully to achieve lasting impact sometimes means turning up the heat on the people in charge – like a records clerk who’d prefer to shuffle you out of the office, or even a police chief or city council.

Along the way, open records advocates say, Albers has laid out a roadmap for other Kansans wishing to hold public officials in their communities accountable for their actions. “They might not all be as big an issue or, sadly, as important as trying to find out some of the information around a tragic circumstance like that, but it all matters, and it all makes a difference,” says Dave Trabert, chief executive officer of the Kansas Policy Institute, which files dozens of such requests each year as part of its free-market projects.

 

Sheila Albers begins each morning in this chair, alone with her thoughts. But memories of her 17-year-old son John, who was shot to death by an Overland Park police officer, sometimes tug at her sleeve. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

Chain of Events

Albers and her husband, Steve, adopted John from Belarus when he was 18 months old. He had spent the first six months of his life in a hospital, abandoned there by his birth mother. He lived in an orphanage for a year after that.

As Sheila Albers, 51, came to understand, it is not uncommon for babies adopted out of such circumstances to experience emotional problems as young adults. At the time he was killed, Albers says, her son had been on an emotional roller coaster for about a year.

John’s behavior perplexed his parents. He seemed to purposely sabotage his own success. It was as if the handsome young man with thick blond hair and crystal blue eyes sought to validate his feelings that he was a bad kid, even though he was a good student and a talented athlete.

A case in point came the afternoon of the day he was killed, when he was caught trying to steal clothes from a local sporting goods store. He was distraught at the possibility of again serving time at the Johnson County Juvenile Detention Center. (He had spent a few days there after a prior brush with the law.)

The Alberses had grounded their son after that incident, but they still wanted him to join them at a dinner out that evening with extended family. He declined, and it was after they left early in the evening that friends called police about his communications on FaceTime and Snapchat.

Six of the shots Jenison fired hit John Albers, including one to the head and another to the back of the neck.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Johnson County law enforcement authorities established an Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team. The team said it spent approximately 625 hours investigating before delivering its report to Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe six days after the shooting.

One month after the shooting, Howe announced Jenison would not face criminal charges. Howe concluded that Jenison reasonably believed he was at risk of being run over and killed by the van as it backed out.

In a civil suit filed shortly after the shooting, Sheila Albers claimed Jenison had ample space to move out of the way of the van rather than shooting at the vehicle as it slowly backed out of the garage. The suit also said Jenison had “absolutely no reasonable basis” to unholster his weapon as he walked toward the garage as the door began to open.

Without admitting guilt, the city settled the lawsuit for $2.3 million in early 2019. Jenison resigned from the police department shortly after the shooting, though the FBI and the U.S attorney’s office for the District of Kansas are looking into his law enforcement training as part of a civil rights investigation into the death.

 

  • Police records and lab reports obtained by Sheila Albers
    The death of John Albers spurred his mother, Sheila, to try to gather all the information she could about how the police handled the call that ended in his death. By uncovering those details and uncovering missteps, she hopes that her work can be used to help prevent other such tragedies. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
Detective Work

Albers hopes that her persistence in uncovering details of the shooting can identify missteps and help avoid such tragedies in the future.

Her quest for openness is a calling, she says, just like education was to her career.

But another reason for her zealousness is personal: “I don’t think you are ever able to process a tragedy unless you have all the facts,” she says.

Albers trekked to the sheriff’s office last year on a hunch. She surmised that the crime lab might have the trajectory report, after she had come up empty with open records requests to Overland Park and the district attorney’s office.

That was not the first time intuition led her to uncover information about the shooting of her son. One of her biggest breakthroughs came about a year earlier, when she confirmed her suspicion that the city had paid Jenison to leave the force.

In late June 2020, Albers was sitting at her kitchen counter with payroll records from the Overland Park Police Department spread out before her. She was looking for clues of a payout in the salary information, which outlined overall expenditures by shift.

Thinking back, Albers says she and a local TV reporter she was working with should have simply requested Jenison’s salary information from the time he was on the force. But hindsight is 20/20.

At her kitchen counter, she was looking for anomalies in the payroll, which covered pay periods right around the time Jenison resigned. The TV reporter had obtained the records and shared them with Albers.

She knew Jenison worked evenings. She noticed that total payroll for the evening shift in early March 2018 was approximately $100,000 higher than it had been the previous pay period, and then the figure dropped again in the next pay period.

That is when she started throwing search terms into Google to see if she could find Jenison’s payroll information. Through her experience in the education system, she knew salary information for government employees is a public record. 

One of her searches turned up an online database that showed Jenison had made $81,000 as an Overland Park police officer in 2018. That figure seemed high for a rookie cop, and it was especially strange because he had only worked two months that year before resigning.

She sent screenshots to reporters she knew, and when they started asking questions about the information, the city divulged it had made a $70,000 severance payment to Jenison along with compensation for unused vacation and other benefits.

The city did not release the full severance agreement until eight months later, in March 2021, when Johnson County District Judge Rhonda K. Mason ordered its disclosure in a lawsuit brought by The Kansas City Star.

The city had claimed the agreement was covered by several open records exemptions, including those covering personnel records and personal medical information, but the judge ruled it was an “employment related contract or agreement” subject to disclosure. One month after the release of the severance agreement, the city released the full shooting investigation report in the face of a lawsuit filed by KSHB-TV.

In a lengthy statement, the city said continuing to withhold the report had “become an obstacle to restoring the community’s trust and confidence in the City of Overland Park, its officials, and the Overland Park Police Department.”

Bernie Rhodes, a Kansas City, Missouri, media attorney who represented The Star and KSHB, says Albers’ willingness to seek answers to her questions despite the challenges involved proved crucial.

“It was her internet research that broke this case open,” he says. “And anybody can do that; you don’t need to be a reporter to do that.”

Albers has not won all her government accountability battles.

The Kansas attorney general rejected her argument that the body overseeing and setting Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team policy, the Johnson County Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, should be subject to the open meetings act.

That law generally applies to governmental bodies, not nonprofits such as the police and sheriffs association, but Albers contended it conducted public business because its member officers come from government agencies. But the attorney general determined the meetings were more akin to staff discussions not covered by the law. 

Meanwhile, both she and The Star have argued unsuccessfully – to state regulators and in court – that Overland Park officials wrongly characterized Jenison’s resignation from the police force as a result of personal or professional reasons, as opposed to being involuntary or coming under questionable circumstances.

 

Some of John Albers’ classmates at Blue Valley Northwest High School memorialized his loss by donning school soccer jerseys with John’s name and number. (Courtesy photo)

Different Outcome

Much in the same way that journalistic investigations can mobilize communities and generate broad impacts, Albers’ efforts have inspired advocacy and helped spur reforms in the way Overland Park police respond to mental health crises.

One proponent of the changes is Jan Marrs, another Overland Park mother who knows the anguish that can result from mental illness. She lost a daughter to suicide in 2016.

Less than two years later another daughter was struggling with bullying at school, and her tormentors faked concern for her wellbeing by sending police to the Marrs home when the daughter made a social media post suggesting suicide.

The incident occurred mere hours before police were dispatched to check the welfare of John Albers, but the outcome could not have been more different. The key, Marrs says, is that a mental health clinician, known as a co-responder, arrived along with police.

The police call, she says, turned into an impromptu counseling session on the dangers of social media and provided an outside ear to listen to the harms brought on by the bullying.

Marrs considers herself fortunate that her crisis occurred on a Friday morning as opposed to a Saturday evening, when the Albers incident occurred. At the time, the city had only one co-responder, who worked mostly weekday shifts.

But that is changing this year, following recommendations issued in May by a mental health task force that the Public Safety Committee of the Overland Park City Council established in the wake of the shooting of John Albers. One of the task force’s many recommendations led to the establishment of the Overland Park Crisis Action Team, which will provide mental health and crisis intervention responses on a 24/7 basis. The City Council approved a property tax increase to pay for the new unit along with other public safety priorities.

The crisis action team now has six mental health co-responders. That is double the number of co-responders the department had previously, while the new team also adds several crisis intervention specialist officers.

Marrs served on the task force, as did a member of JoCo United, a nonprofit that Albers and her allies started after the death of her son. 

The organization, which has 14 core members and approximately 1,300 followers on its Facebook page, advocates for greater transparency about police policy and practices, expanded crisis intervention training for law enforcement and greater collaboration between government and community agencies.

Prodding by JoCo United definitely helped spur establishment of the task force, Marrs says, lending weight to similar calls from members of the City Council. Marrs had shared the positive outcome of her interaction with the co-responder, but that had not prompted an expansion of crisis intervention efforts in the city.

“Unfortunately, it took a tragedy and Sheila and JoCo United stepping up to really help drive the change that needed to happen,” Marrs says. 

Asked about the impact that Albers and JoCo United has had on city policy since the Albers shooting, city spokeswoman Meg Ralph noted via email that Overland Park responded to their calls for transparency by releasing the shooting investigation report, even though it was not a city document and the police department traditionally did not release criminal investigation records.

She says the city “works to be as open as possible” while balancing privacy rights and impacts on future investigations “when determining how to best serve the entire community.”

The city and the police department, she says, “constantly review and update policies and procedures in accordance with industry standards and community expectations. City officials appreciate all efforts to improve the services we provide to the community.”

JoCo United, a nonprofit that Albers and her allies started after the death of her son, has 14 core members and approximately 1,300 followers on its Facebook page. It advocates for greater transparency about police policy and practices, expanded crisis intervention training for law enforcement and greater collaboration between government and community agencies. (Courtesy photo)


Lessons Learned

Albers was not an open records expert when she began her quest. But intuition told her she needed to grasp the underpinnings of the investigation before she could begin asking the right questions.

“You have to get the big picture first,” she says. “You go read, ask questions and you figure it out.”

That is why she obtained the memorandum of understanding for the shooting investigation team and the manual that set out the parameters of those investigations.

Her experience offers lessons for Kansans in other communities looking to hold public officials accountable for their actions. 

Albers learned the importance of seeking assistance from outside experts, such as the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Collaboration also came into play in a big way through JoCo United.

“None of us were mental health experts,” Albers says. “We all felt pretty empowered to do research. I think we all kind of felt our way through it. It was teamwork at its best.”

Albers also found it helpful to reimagine her professional skills as open records tools. 

Looking for answers in the shooting, she says, was not much different from sorting through potential interventions for a struggling student when she was a principal.

Ingenuity also helps.

For example, Albers mined the Twitter feed of the Johnson County Regional Police Academy for clues about the FBI investigation.

In looking at tweets from 2016 when Jenison was undergoing training, she discovered that a Leawood police officer was among the instructors. Based on that information, she submitted an open records request to the city of Leawood, and unearthed a subpoena from the grand jury empaneled as part of the FBI investigation.

In another instance, when Albers hit a brick wall in seeking the Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team memorandum of understanding from Overland Park and the district attorney’s office, she thought Prairie Village might be more amicable. She was right, and she got what she wanted.

Jill Quigley is an open records advocate as a board member with the Kansas Sunshine 

Coalition for Open Government. A former Kansas lawmaker, she is also active with Johnson County voter education groups.

She and Dave Trabert of the Kansas Policy Institute both agree Albers’ tenacity and background research is something all open records users would do well to emulate.

Government transparency is vital to an informed electorate, Quigley says. “It’s informed citizens that make informed votes that make democracy go,” she says.

Quigley also says Albers was smart to work with the media. “It does not do any good to sit in your home and stew about what you know,” she says. 

Working with reporters was a two-way street, Albers says. She was a natural source for the media, but she also cultivated relationships with reporters who had experience covering crime issues. She even connected with one national reporter by using LinkedIn.

Albers says her background research also helped her provide credible, concise information to local and national reporters.

Quigley and Trabert say that government officials often deny requests simply because they don’t know the requirements of the law. The sunshine coalition has in the past worked with the attorney general’s office to train local officials on their obligations when it comes to open records, and Trabert says his organization is happy to answer open records questions for people.

One tip Trabert offers to requesters is that it can be better to make piecemeal requests rather than ask for a lot of records all at once. One good strategy, he says, is to incrementally file records requests, building upon information that is released.

That is also a good way to avoid a hefty fee from governments, which are allowed to charge search and copy fees. Excessive fees are a perennial concern for the sunshine coalition, Quigley says, and Trabert termed huge bills the “go-away price” used to stymie records requests.

Albers has experienced this to a certain extent: The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department charged her $64 in search and copying fees for a four-page roster of the members of the shooting investigation board. She had to return to the office because the office would only accept exact change or a money order – and it required payment in advance.

The two advocates also urged aggrieved constituents to lobby their state legislators for changes to open government laws.

But persuading government officials to embrace outside scrutiny might very well be what is needed most, Quigley says.

“Every organization has things wrong with it,” she says, “and we have kind of gotten away from the idea that you admit your faults and go forward, better.”

 

Discussion Guide
  1. What challenges did Sheila Albers run up against while questioning the official narrative of her son’s death?
  2. What challenges do you face when challenging authority? How are they similar to Albers’ challenges? How are they different?
  3. What do you think distinguishes a personal quest from an act of leadership? What conditions for leadership, if any, do you see being met in this story?

 

 

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A version of this article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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