Federal civil rights charges won’t be filed against Kansas police officer who killed teenage driver

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Federal prosecutors announced Friday that they will not pursue civil rights criminal charges against a Kansas police officer who fatally shot a teenager in 2018 during a well-being check.

The Justice Department’s decision comes nearly two years after it opened an investigation into the killing of John Albers, 17, whose death in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park reignited a national outcry over the use of excessive force by police.

“At this time, there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer willfully committed a violation of the federal Criminal Civil Rights Act,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “Specifically, the evidence does not make clear the high bar the Supreme Court has set for meeting this standard, and therefore the division has closed its inquiry into this matter.”

Overland Park Police Officer Clayton Jenison had been on the force for about two years at the time of the shooting. He eventually agreed to resign — with a $70,000 severance package — despite being cleared of wrongdoing by Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe.

Announcing no charges would be filed, Howe released dashcam video and said Jennison, who said he feared for his life, was vindicated for his actions when he opened fire 13 times.

But Albers’ parents have long disputed the police department’s account of what happened, accusing local prosecutors’ investigation of bias and incompetence.

Despite the lack of federal charges, the Albers family said in a statement that they believe the FBI conducted a “thorough and impartial review.”

“The openness, empathy and compassion shown by the professionals at the DOJ and FBI helped us feel supported — and honored John,” the family said. “Again, this was not the treatment we received from local law enforcement and city leaders, who chose to dishonor our son.”

Albers’ parents pushed for the case files to be made public, which finally happened in April 2021, when the city of Overland Park released a revised 500-page report along with photos, additional dashcam footage and an interview conducted with Jennison after the shooting. NBC affiliate KSHB in Kansas City, Missouri, had also sued Overland Park over the release of those investigative files.

The files included social media posts and journal entries in which Albers, a high school student, appeared to be struggling with mental health issues.

On January 20, 2018, police were called to his home after a friend expressed concern that he might be drunk and suicidal, saying he had threatened to stab himself with a knife.

At the time of the call, shortly before dusk, Albers was home alone while his family had gone out to eat.

Dashcam footage and a neighbor’s security camera showed Jennison and another officer arriving at the home. They stayed outside for a few minutes and did not knock on the front door or identify themselves. Finally, the home’s garage door opened and Jennison drew his gun and moved toward the door as a minivan, driven by Albers, began to back up slowly and in a straight line.

Jennison reacted, aimed his gun and yelled, “Stop, stop, stop.” Jennison, standing to the right of the van, fired twice at Albers.

In a lawsuit filed by the family against the city and Jennison, the Albers allege that one or both bullets struck the teenager, “weakening him and rendering him unable to control the minivan.”

John Albers. (Courtesy of Sheila Albers)

The car stopped, but then sped into reverse, making a U-turn on the road and reversing. Jennison fired 11 more shots and the minivan pulled forward, passing another police car that had just approached, and pulled into the driveway of a home across the street, according to the report and dashcam video.

An autopsy report later showed that six bullets had struck Albers. A toxicology report showed he was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In an interview with investigators after the shooting, Jennison said he hid outside the home because he didn’t know if Albers was going to “harm himself or if he also has homicidal tendencies.”

The Justice Department said Friday that the focus of its review was to determine whether federal prosecutors could prove, in part, that Jenison had deprived Albers of his constitutional rights, including by “intentionally using unreasonable force against of the person”. But the researchers added that the federal government has no law that criminalizes the use of unreasonable force by a police officer “if intentionality cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Albers family settled their complaint against Overland Park and Jenison in 2019 for $2.3 million, the Washington Post reported, although the city and Jenison did not admit liability and Overland Park said it settled to avoid costs and the duration of a lawsuit.

NBC News reached out to Jenison and the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office for comment after the Justice Department ruled on the case.

In a joint response, the Overland Park Police Department and the city of Overland Park said their respective officials were cooperating with the federal investigation.

Federal investigators noted that the decision not to file charges in Albers’ death “does not change the fact that his loss was an unnecessary tragedy” and pointed out how a federal district court overseeing the lawsuit had ruled that a reasonable jury could to conclude that the officer did use unreasonable force when he fired the first two shots at Albers.

“The federal criminal investigation found no substantial evidence to contradict this conclusion,” the Justice Department said.

The Albers family responded that “we cannot ignore the underlying theme of the DOJ’s statement: local officials failed in their investigation, failed to make viable state charges, and ignored the fact that a jury could certainly find that the officer used unreasonable force . “

Since Albers’ death, Overland Park has overhauled the department and its policies, creating a separate mental health unit to respond to calls and prohibiting police from shooting into a moving car.

“But there is still work to be done,” said the Albers family. “We need more crisis intervention training for all of our officers who step up to serve us every day. We need a culture of transparency and compassion from the top down in local government and law enforcement.”

Under the Biden administration, federal prosecutors have brought federal civil rights charges against police officers in other high-profile cases, most recently against two current and two former police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, who were involved in a raid that led to the death of Breona Taylor, a 26-year-old physician. .

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call them National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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