The Overland Park police officer who fired into a moving van and killed suicidal teenager John Albers reasonably feared his life was in danger, Johnson County Prosecutor Steve Howe said in a press conference Tuesday.
But the prosecutor’s decision did not quiet public reaction as debate persisted questioning if the officer was in enough danger to warrant firing into the moving van.
In chilling dashcam video released with the announcement, the officer was standing in the driveway of Albers’ family home Jan. 20 in the early evening when the garage door opened to let out a Honda minivan backing down the driveway.
“Stop!” the officer is heard shouting. He calls 17-year-old John by name. The van keeps backing out and the officer jumps aside and fires two shots from the side.
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The van backs toward the street and then whips back around, still in reverse, in the direction of the officer, who fires 11 more shots from the side. The van slips into neutral and drifts to a stop in a yard across the street.
“These are tragic situations,” 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.
At the end of the video, 14 seconds after Albers backed out of the garage, the officer is heard in a distraught voice saying, “I thought he was going to run me over.”
The officer was placed on administrative leave during the investigation and has since resigned for personal reasons.
Albers’ family was shown the videos and informed of the prosecutor’s decision prior to Tuesday’s press conference, Howe said. A phone message from The Star left with the family had not been returned as of Tuesday evening.
Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Albers’ mother, Sheila Albers, had anticipated in an interview with the Blue Valley Northwest High School newspaper, the BVNW News, that the investigation of the shooting and the release of the videos might stress the community.
But she urged people not to react with any violence.
“It is OK to be upset, but I want everyone to be peaceful,” said Sheila Albers, the principal of Blue Valley’s Harmony Middle School. “Any sort of violent response will not honor John. It will not honor my family.”
Many people seeing the videos wondered on social media why police could not continue running from the vehicle’s path. One police expert also questioned the officer’s actions.
David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, reviewed the video of the shooting at the request of The Star and said one question came to his mind.
“Why did the officer step into the line of the vehicle in the first place when he was never in danger?” asked Klinger who previously worked as a police officer on patrol for the Los Angeles and Redmond, Wash., police departments.
“It’s clear to me that all he had to do was step to the right and he would be clear of the vehicle,” Klinger said.
The officer had jumped to the side of the van before he shot, but Howe said that a vehicle can still be a danger with only a quick turn of a steering wheel.
“None of us can be in the mind of the officer at that time,” Howe said. “He felt he was in danger and he took reasonable action.”
The investigators could not determine if the fatal shot occurred during the first two shots, or in the 11 fired after the van spun around, Howe said.
How a police officer takes position near a vehicle is an important part of training, Klinger said.
Klinger said further internal analysis by Overland Park police would be an important follow-up.
“The bigger question about public safety, the bigger question about police work, is a social question,” he said. “When someone dies, there should be a thorough assessment by the entity that killed the guy, to see did we do everything right? And you’ve got to be honest.”
As a police tactic, shooting into a moving vehicle has long been restricted by some police departments, with many determining it is a bad practice except in certain circumstances.
The Overland Park Police Department will review what happened and its lethal force policy, Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez said.
“We want to make sure we are doing things properly,” he said.
Donchez expressed sympathy for the Albers family and the Blue Valley Northwest High School community for their “tragic loss.”
“It’s devastating,” he said. “You can hear it in the officer’s voice. It’s devastating for the family and it’s just as devastating for the officer.”
Howe and Donchez discussed the findings of the Johnson County Officer-Involved Shooting Team’s investigation into the shooting at a press conference Tuesday morning before releasing the police video of the shooting.
Reaction was quick on social media.
“It seems like if the officers just would run out of harm’s way, they would be less likely to be hurt by this vehicle,” Julian Araiza wrote on the Star’s Facebook page. “How was shooting at him the only option?”
Others saw an officer in danger. The driver was not heeding commands to stop, and, after the initial gun shots, the van spun back again toward the officer, who then fired again.
“Watch the video of the kid really trying hard to run over a cop and then spin around and try it again,” Trey Kendall wrote. “Looks justified to me.”
Overland Park police had been called to the house in the 9300 block of West 149th Terrace because the Blue Valley Northwest High School student was reported to be suicidal.
The person who called 911 early that evening had witnessed the teen’s distress in a FaceTime phone call and called the police for help, according to radio traffic.
“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 had been alone in his basement and his parents were not home.
Police were aware that Albers was in mental health distress and two of the officers who responded to the scene Jan. 20 were specially trained CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) officers, Donchez said.
But none had any opportunity to make any contact with Albers before he drove the van out of the garage, he said.
The Overland Park Police Department’s policy on shooting at moving vehicles is not as strict as those recommended nationally. It says officers will not shoot at a moving vehicle “except in self-defense or defense of another and when the suspect is using deadly force.”
Other agencies require the deadly force to come from something other than the vehicle.
Officers’ best route to safety usually is to move out of the way, many law enforcement agencies have found. A moving car remains a danger if the driver is shot.