When “Welfare Check” Costs a Teenager’s Life

When a tragic suicide, as if there’s any other kind, makes the rounds on social media, there’s an outpouring of sympathy, “thoughts and prayers” and a push to try to do something to help. Someone did just that for 17-year-old John Albers in Overland Park, Kansas.

When 17-year-old John Albers threatened suicide on FaceTime, his friends called police.

Albers, a junior varsity soccer player and wrestler, was home alone on Jan. 20, 2018, in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, when police were called to the two-story house to check on him.

Was he a young man in distress? Maybe, though it’s a hard call to decide whether to act upon one’s concern, one’s fear. After all, what if, this time, he did it and you did nothing to stop it? Didn’t that make you complicit? 

“He took pills, and (was) drinking heavily,” the dispatcher said. “He (the 911 caller) saw this on FaceTime. He (Albers) also told (the 911 caller) that he was going to stab himself and he’s done with life.”

Albers was venting on FaceTime, and the unnamed caller saw it. He decided to do something and called police. It was out of concern. It was an effort to help someone. It cost Albers his life.

When they arrived at the home, two officers never “announced their presence at the residence” or even knocked on the door, the complaint alleges. Several minutes later, the family’s two-car garage door began to rise, according to the lawsuit.

Officer Jenison began moving toward the vehicle and unholstered his weapon, as Albers backed out of the garage at about 2.5 mph in a straight line, the lawsuit alleges, noting that the officer’s actions were contrary to department policies and general law-enforcement standards.

Jenison allegedly yelled “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and waited only “one second” before he fired his pistol twice at Albers.

Why unholster his gun in the first place? He wasn’t there because of a crime, but to check on the welfare of a teenager. But in the scheme of welfare, Officer Clayton Jenison’s came first. So what if this teen had no idea there were police called to his home? So what if he didn’t know there would be a cop outside when he decided to take the minivan out of the garage?

Whether Albers presented a serious risk of harm to himself can’t be known. Kids can say things they don’t really mean. Sometimes it’s a cry for attention. Sometimes it’s just an emo indulgence. Sometimes it’s real. And people who see a teenager’s threat to “end it all” may have a strong sense of seriousness, or not a clue, but have been indoctrinated to “see something, say something.” After all, if someone seems to be a potential suicide, why wouldn’t you try to help?

Remember, the 911 caller who saw Albers’ threat of harm on FaceTime was just trying to help.

Maybe Albers’ parents knew better, knew that this was just some teenage angst and that their son was okay. Maybe his parents knew better than to call the cops, realizing that police may help or may kill, and they weren’t prepared to risk the latter for the former. Maybe his parents knew that in times of emotional, mental strains, the police are not the best choice of responders if you want someone to survive the encounter. And John Albers didn’t survive.

Video evidence from a neighbor’s front door camera shows the minivan’s rear brake lights activated as soon as the first shot was fired, according to the lawsuit. But Albers was allegedly hit, “rendering him incapacitated and completely unable to keep control of the minivan.”

Albers pulled the Honda minivan out of the garage, slowly as one ordinarily does. There was no reason he would have been aware of, or concerned about, the presence of a police officer outside his home. There was no reason a police officer should have been concerned about Albers.

Jenison—who was allegedly never in the path of the vehicle—fired 11 more shots at the minivan.

The first two bullets were the ones that mattered most, as the van whipping around so that its rear swung toward Jenison, causing the bizarre reaction to pump 11 more rounds into the back of a minivan as if that would make it stop. There was no reason to suspect Albers pulling out of the garage in the minivan was meant to pose a threat to Jenison. There was no reason to believe that it did. Yet the cop fired at the teen whose welfare he was there to check.

“These are tragic situations,” [Johnson County Prosecutor Steve] Howe said. “No officer I know wants to take a person’s life.”

Howe’s review of an investigation by a team of law enforcement officials from neighboring departments determined that the officer was reasonably in fear for his life.

“Under Kansas law, this was a proper use of force,” he said.

Even under the Reasonably Scared Cop Rule, Jenison’s claim of fear stretches the argument beyond its breaking point. There was nothing about the situation that gave rise to a claim of fear.*

There was nothing physically that justified fear of harm, even if inadvertent. Even if mom’s minivan was aiming at Jenison, which it wasn’t, it was moving at a crawl. Even if Jenison was in the line of the minivan backing out, which he wasn’t, he could have stepped out of the way. And a detail that may not be apparent at first is that Jenison could not have known who was driving that minivan with certainty. He might have killed mom rather than John. He wouldn’t know for sure until after he stopped firing.

Albers family is suing the police, the town and Jenison, who has since resigned from the police force “for personal reasons.” Whether they can overcome Qualified Immunity given that the prosecutor’s conclusion that Jenison was in “reasonable fear” by cop-delusion remains to be seen. But even if you think it ill-advised to call the cops for a welfare check, you can’t stop someone who sees something on social media and decides that calling the cops is a good idea because they want to be empathetic and helpful.

*Yes, there is a thing called “suicide by cop,” which occurs when someone threatens to harm a police officer in order to induce the cops to kill the person. That didn’t happen here. There was nothing here whatsoever to suggest anything of the sort.

27 thoughts on “When “Welfare Check” Costs a Teenager’s Life

  1. Pat Riot

    Reasonable fear for his life? Don’t think so. This (now ex-) cop should be thrown in jail for life, no parole. Also, why was police dispatched in this case, and not an ambulance, paramedics? Perfect example of 911/police stupidity. Hope the parents sue the h*ll out of everyone and win.

    1. SHG Post author

      Have you ever considered taking psychotropic medication to deal with your pathological narcissism? It could help.

    2. DaveL

      Sure, why bother with things like a trial, or sentencing guidelines? We’re angry now, right?

  2. REvers

    Y’know, maybe we really do need some more gun laws. Like, for instance, a prohibition on being within 100 feet of a firearm if you’re a coward.

    1. Frank

      We should have safe spaces for the cowards so they don’t have to deal with the real world. We used to have them until Regan cut the budget.

    2. SHG Post author

      There’s something about this scenario where coward doesn’t quite fit. There was no threat whatsoever, and the “feared for his life” seems to be no more than an excuse. Hammer/nail maybe? Things weren’t going as Jenison wanted them to, so he fired because he didn’t know what else to do?

      1. Anonymous

        Many of the paramedic students I had to precept were very well versed in the art of CYA. Marking the check box for oxygen on every patient; filling out a blood pressure for the one you never took; always writing less in the physical assessment section for fear of “the more I write, the more they have to hang me”, were muscle memory the moment they clocked in. “Do no harm” and “you are the patient’s advocate” were textbook novelties. Hell, even the EMS instructors used the term CYA, though very poorly in an attempt to protect you “on the job”.

        So on their first rotation, CYA was turned on its head to Can You Articulate. And for the rest of their hours they were forced to clearly and concisely articulate or document every single minuscule detail of every single action and of every thought process. For every patient, for every rotation and without fail. But it’s a hard sell. And it was easy for the student to sign up for rotations with preceptors who wanted nothing more than to ignore the third wheel.

        It’s easy to call Jenison a coward or ask for life plus cancer after the fact. He most likely had the the best intentions when he signed up to be a cop. But it’s highly probable that what he stepped in was a culture of CYA, poorly thought out technical training, or good technical training without a clearly articulated overarching philosophy that needed to be continuously reinforced. All this under tutelage of training officers, supervisors and managers pulled from that same rank and file of muscle memory CYA.

        (I was working on brevity.)

        1. SHG Post author

          Most (not all, but most) cops have the best of intentions when they sign up for the job. And that may well be the case. But there is a tenuous connection between good intentions and pulling out your weapon because you were startled on a welfare check. When your first reaction to ignorant suprise is to kill, it ain’t bravery.

  3. I'll show myself out

    Albers got what he claimed to have wanted: death. Which means that the lawsuit is once again proof that no good deed goes unpunished. .

  4. B. McLeod

    I don’t concur with the general notion that suicides are always tragic. Sometimes, people know what they are doing, and I am personally reluctant to Monday-morning quarterback their decisions.

    That said, there is really nothing in this story to indicate this particular decedent had made that decision. Rather, the core problem here is calling police to stave off a potential suicide when it so often (as here) leads to destroying the village in order to save the village. The number of similar incidents (now regular occurrences) suggests that we really need an agency other than the police to be available to respond to these types of calls.

      1. LocoYokel

        How about EMS or Fire Department? They are better equipped if someone needs medical assistance anyway and *very* basic and low level counseling can be added to the paramedic training. No guns needed.

          1. Ken Mackenzie

            One version of the Memphis model has mental health professionals accompany police officers to jobs like this one.

  5. Marty

    The reasonably scared cop standard appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy (devolving standard) wherein each of the post hoc “justified” killings, no matter how far beyond the pale they may be (the subject matter here being just the latest example), serve to further expand the rule to excuse any killing by an officer.

  6. Ray

    “Under Kansas law, this was a proper use of force,”

    I’m not a lawyer so I apologize in advance if this question is stupid, but.
    Is this Prosecutor saying that a cop I drive past can kill me in self defense, on the grounds that I might decide to try and run him over?

      1. Ray

        Apparently his statement was clear enough. But it seems to be ridiculously stupid and counterproductive, if the overall goal is to reduce the number of cops that get run over.
        If this shooting was not only legal but “proper”, wouldn’t anyone who runs over a cop have a pretty good argument for self defense?

        (If it needs to be said. I’m not suggesting that people should run over cops.)

        1. SHG Post author

          If you ask one question, whether that’s what he said, you get an answer to that question. Whether that statement is legally correct is a different question. You need to work harder on how to ask a question.

          1. Ray

            What?

            All I know about law, is that the more I learn about the law the less I understand.

            1. Jay

              SHG is tough. I learned to post less and lurk and read more. It’s more efficient for my pea brain, and it doesn’t interrupt the conversation. I appreciate the smart guys and what they have to say, and that I’m more of a distraction.

            2. Ray

              I’ve read this blog for a while, including the comment section…So I know he’s a crusty old fuck. 😉

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