Overland Park police used long-criticized tactic in fatally shooting teen in vehicle

Listen to dispatch radio traffic as police respond to suicide attempt of BVNW student

John Albers, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest High School, was shot and killed by a police officer responding to a call at his home.
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John Albers, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest High School, was shot and killed by a police officer responding to a call at his home.

After an Overland Park police officer shot and killed a 17-year-old high school junior last weekend, a police spokesman explained that the teen had been driving a vehicle toward the officer who shot him.

Many details of how police came to shoot Blue Valley Northwest High School student John Albers are not yet known, as a law enforcement investigation into the shooting continues.

But opening fire at a moving vehicle has for decades been considered a bad idea except under certain circumstances, according to national law enforcement experts and policies adopted by some of the biggest police departments in the U.S.

Since the 1970s, New York police have prohibited shooting at moving cars unless someone in the vehicle is using or threatening deadly violence by means other than the vehicle itself. Since then, other major city police forces have followed suit in Chicago, Washington D.C., Denver and others.

The reason: bullets don’t stop a moving car. If the officer is in the path of a moving vehicle the best — or only — way to safety is to move. And if the officer is not in the path, there may be no need to shoot.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Justice, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and think tanks such as the Police Executive Research Forum have backed policies against shooting at moving vehicles — unless there is a threat other than the vehicle.

“It’s something we think makes a lot of sense,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, who has studied the prohibitions against shooting at moving cars beginning with New York in 1972. “For over 40 years, it’s about the sanctity of human life for both the officer and the person in the vehicle.”

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.”

When The Star requested a copy of the Overland Park Police Department’s policy on the use of force Tuesday, assistant city attorney Eric Blevins refused to provide it. He cited an exemption to the Kansas Open Records Act that pertains to emergency procedures or security plans for public facilities.

After receiving a letter from The Star’s attorney explaining that the use of force policy is a public record and that the exemption cited did not apply, city officials provided it Wednesday.

Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez Jr. said Thursday that his department’s policy on shooting at moving vehicles does not require the deadly force to be something other than the vehicle itself, as other cities’ policies do.

He said the policy has been the same since at least 2009 and he knew of no differences in earlier versions.

Donchez said he was aware that other police departments have different policies on shooting at moving vehicles but knew of no discussions about changing the policy at the Overland Park department. He said the department will likely review that policy and others to consider whether they need to be updated.

“I understand the intent, but here’s the problem,” Donchez said. “It is impossible — or it’s almost impossible — to write a policy that covers every possible situation under the sun.”

The tighter restrictions that other departments have adopted often include exceptions for extreme circumstances. If the driver is firing a gun at people, or is bent on running people over and can’t be stopped and all other possible actions, including moving out of the path of the vehicle, won’t work, the officer is allowed to take the extraordinary step of shooting at the vehicle.

What exactly preceded the shooting Saturday in Overland Park remains unclear. Police have said officers were called to Albers’ home shortly before 6 p.m. because it had been reported he was suicidal.

Police had been told Albers, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest, had been taking pills and drinking heavily and had, via a FaceTime phone call, told someone he was going to stab himself. At least one of the responding officers was familiar with Albers, according to police radio traffic.

As officers approached the house in the 9300 block of W. 149th Terrace, the garage door opened and a vehicle came out moving “rapidly” toward one of the officers, with Albers at the wheel, according to police. The officer shot Albers, killing him. No officers were injured.

Police have not said how many shots the officer fired, but investigators later used at least nine small orange cones to mark pieces of evidence along the edge of the driveway and the street. Neighbors reported hearing six shots.

After the shooting, the vehicle — a Honda minivan — ended up in a front yard across the street, according to neighbors. It appeared to have come out of the driveway facing forward.

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Police have not said that Albers had a weapon other than the vehicle.

John Albers Facebook

The shooting is being investigated by the Johnson County Officer-Involved Shooting Team.

Overland Park police vehicles are equipped with video cameras, Chief Donchez said. He didn’t expect the video to be released while the investigation continues. Overland Park officers are not issued body cameras.

“I just hope people bear with us as the Johnson County shooting investigation team does their work,” Donchez said. “Certainly I convey our department’s sympathy to the family and the community. This is a difficult situation. Because we’re all in this together.”

Last year, a group of national law enforcement groups and police unions included a general recommendation against shooting at moving vehicles in its National Consensus Policy and Discussion Paper on Use of Force. The paper was backed by nearly a dozen law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.

The National Consensus paper says guns should not be fired at moving vehicles unless a person in the vehicle is threatening the officer or someone else with something other than the vehicle. It allows that shots could be fired at a moving vehicle if the driver is deliberately trying to hit someone and “all other reasonable means of defense have been exhausted,” including moving out of the vehicle’s path.

Such recommendations are not binding on police everywhere. As guidelines, they deal in what police should do — not what they are legally allowed to do under the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard for police use of force.

Because there is no official centralized rule-making body for police in the U.S., each of the nation’s nearly 18,000 police agencies make their own policies.

After Department of Justice investigations into the use of force by police departments in Las Vegas and Cleveland, those departments adopted tighter rules against shooting at moving vehicles unless there is a threat other than the vehicle itself. While some large departments have taken up that standard, many others have not.

The Denver Police Department prohibited firing at moving vehicles in 2015 after a series of deadly vehicle shootings were scrutinized by the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian oversight agency in Denver.

Denver police officials say they studied the issue, meeting with other police leaders and looking at studies done by PERF and the Force Science Institute. Based on that, they took up the tighter national restrictions against shooting at moving vehicles and trained officers to focus on getting out of the path of vehicles instead. Their policy includes exceptions for unusual circumstances.

“I think the changes the department made have helped,” said Nick Mitchell, the independent monitor in Denver. “The changes both in policy and even more so in training have made these kinds of interactions safer. Policy is just words on paper. To make it come alive you really have to do situation-based training.”

Denver poster
A training poster used by the Denver Police Department emphasizes moving from the path of a vehicle. The department tightened a policy prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles. Denver Police Department

As part of that training, the Denver Police Department created a simple poster showing the front of a car bearing down on the viewer. “Move,” the poster says. “Or, Move to Cover.”

On Wednesday evening, Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach noted in a written statement that the police department would conduct its own internal investigation of the shooting as well.

“We, as a community, are saddened by the shooting and death of John Albers,” Gerlach’s statement read in part. “It is a difficult time for any community and I fully understand it creates a wide array of emotions. It is always tragic to lose someone you love, and our first thoughts are for the family.”

Police remained at the scene of a fatal officer-involved shooting on Sunday at an Overland Park home.