What happened to John Albers, a 17-year-old high school student whose suicidal cry for help ended in his being shot by a cop for no discernible reason, was a tragic story. But for two weeks after the killing, the cop was known as “Officer John Doe.” It wasn’t until her attorney uncovered it for the ensuing civil suit that they confirmed who shot and killed John Albers.
The difficulties Albers faced to get basic information into how her son, John, died are not unique in a state where police records are largely kept under wraps, even when a case is closed. It took a month for Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe to decide to clear the officer, Clayton Jenison, of wrongdoing.
Before then, Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez had refused to release the officer’s name. Albers said she was never afforded any police reports or witness statements.
Had John been killed by anyone other than a cop, the name, face and rap sheet would be on the front page after a press conference by the police chief with glossies and circles and arrows on the back. Yet, too often, the identity of a killer cop remains a mystery, the investigatory reports are buried and we’re left clueless as to why the cop was given a pass on the killing. Why?
State Rep. David Benson, a Democrat who represents Overland Park, has filed House Bill 2424 for this legislative session, which reopens Jan. 13, and will push for it to get a hearing in committee.
“If the county attorney elects not to prosecute, the officer-involved shooting file must be made public for accountability and transparency purposes,” Benson said. “Otherwise, how does the public know the prosecutor made the right decision?”
Even so, this bill is a tepid reaction to problem.
The bill would not explicitly require an officer’s name to be released, but it would force an investigation by a law enforcement agency separate from the one to which the officer belongs.
There are two assumptions built into this response, the first being that the officers own department cannot conduct an investigation that won’t give rise to the appearance of impropriety, if not an actual conflict of interest. The second is that another law enforcement agency will be more inclined to burn a cop than would his own.
As it stands now, Benson said, Kansas’ public open records law allows police departments and county prosecutors to indiscriminately decide when to release information — a practice supported by officials who believe releasing names and other details could affect a case if it goes to trial. The state’s secretive nature was highlighted in a 2017 series in The Kansas City Star, which found that Kansas has one of the most restrictive laws on police body cameras in the country and that some of the largest police departments in the state do not release the names of officers involved in shootings.
The argument against such revelations is that police officers should be entitled to privacy in their personal lives like anyone else. The nature of the job makes cops particularly susceptible to public outrage and ridicule, and their actions are regularly misapprehended by the public for lack of appreciation of what they do and how they’re supposed to do it. It may well be that an outcome occurs that gives rise to public or private outrage, but from the perspective of law enforcement, and under the law (like the Reasonably Scared Cop Rule) they’ve done nothing wrong, even if the public feels otherwise.
Cops are public employees, acting in our name and on our dime. Should they be entitled to privacy at all in the performance of their duties? If so, what about the worst case scenario, when a cop kills? Does that cross a line where their privacy concerns are trumped by the right of the public, not to mention the mother of the teenager killed in what appears to be an inexcusable act of bad judgment, to know that police shootings are being addressed properly?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.