The Kansas City Star’s lawsuit for open records in the police killing of John Albers represents a larger struggle of government transparency in Overland Park

Almost three years after the death of former BVNW student John Albers, local media is still seeking information from the government surrounding Albers’ death and the severance of the officer who shot him.

John+Albers+was+involved+in+soccer%2C+track+and+field%2C+wrestling+and+AVID+at+BVNW.

Photo from Horizon

John Albers was involved in soccer, track and field, wrestling and AVID at BVNW.

The Kansas City Star announced it’s lawsuit vs. the City of Overland Park under the Kansas Open Records Act Oct. 14 2020. The lawsuit is calling for the severance agreement for Clayton Jenison, the officer who shot and killed Albers in January of 2018. The Star argues under KSA 45-221(a)(4) “employment related contracts or agreements” are not closed records and therefore must be turned over. The lawsuit claims the City of Overland Park “has engaged in a years-long pattern of deception, dissembling and double speak” to hide the severance payment and agreement.
Alber’s mother, Sheila Albers said she first found out about the lawsuit the day it was filed. Sheila said she was wowed to see the passion for transparency and open records.
“I hope the Star wins,” Sheila said. “I hope the Star gets the resignation agreement that the city signed off on with the officer and I hope it sends a message loud and clear that it is not OK to violate open records laws.”
Bernard Rhodes, the attorney representing the Star in this case, said they are hoping to find the truth. Rhodes said that the city of Overland Park has purposely been misleading the public so they want to find answers. Rhodes said the Open Records Act exists because the government can’t be trusted to be truthful.
Sheila also said she is interested in what the severance agreement contains.
“I want to see what’s in those documents,” Sheila said. “You know, is there information in there that will shock the public, that will cause us to wonder, do we have people in leadership roles who are making bad decisions?”
The Star’s lawsuit alleges the police chief, Frank Donchez, misled the public. Donchez originally announced Jenison resigned for personal reasons and a year later Donchez said Jenison left before he was officially encouraged to leave. In June 2019, news broke that Jenison received $70,000 in severance the year Donchez claimed Jenison resigned.
Sheila said when it comes to the police chief, there is an integrity issue and she hopes city council will address the unprofessional behavior.
“At this point, I feel all they’ve done is back him up,” Sheila said. “I think that’s to the disadvantage of this community. What I want to see is city leadership hold him accountable for misleading the public.”
Rhodes said the police chief has failed to demonstrate the ability to lead and the public can’t trust him.
“The chief should be awfully darn happy that I’m not on the Overland Park City Council,” Rhodes said. “Because if I was, it would be easy for me to vote him off the island.”
Sheila said this case is bigger than just the severance agreement but is an issue of government transparency.
“What’s happening in Overland Park is just a microcosm of what’s happening nationally,” Sheila said. “When we continue to allow [the government] to hide that information that the public deserves to know there won’t be any trust, and we won’t be able to make sure that government is working on the behalf of people, not on protecting itself.”
Rhodes said while he has spent 40 years fighting government secrecy, he finds this case specifically offensive due to the deception involved.
“If we can’t believe the chief of police, who can we believe,” Rhodes said. “When the police are not honest, why are we supposed to believe that? Why are we supposed to give them deference when they lie to us? And that that’s unquestionably what I believe happened here.”
Sheila said it is crucial for people to engage in the local government and hold officials accountable.
“It’s important for people to engage in their civic duties here on the local level,” Albers said. “It’s these local decisions that impact our daily lives and we need to know as citizens that leadership are making good decisions, that tax dollars are being spent appropriately and that our government employees are being held accountable. If we become complacent, we jeopardize some of the wonderful things that we’ve accomplished in this city.”
Rhodes said while this case is important for the Albers family it truly is about the community and government transparency.
“If they can hide this document they can hide every document,” Rhodes said. “That’s what the people in government don’t understand, is they work for you and me. And it’s about time we hold them responsible to us, which is what this lawsuit is all about.”
No ruling has been made yet on the Kansas City Star’s lawsuit.
The Star is not alone in the push for open records surrounding this case. KSHB-41 Action News, which is also represented by the McClatchy company that Rhodes works for and represents the Star, requested a copy of the Jenison’s separation agreement but were denied the request. They filed an open records complaint with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office on Aug. 24. After two months with no ruling on the open records complaint all the television station has heard is that it is still under review.
BVNWnews reached out to the Overland Park Police Department for comment and was directed by Public Information Officer John Lacey to BVNW School Resource Officer Jonathan Batley. Batley said he was unable to comment on an ongoing investigation but directed us to the Communications Director for the City of Overland Park, Sean Reilly. BVNWnews reached out to Reilly and is waiting on a response.