Under Kansas law, the name of the Overland Park police officer who shot and killed a suicidal 17-year-old high school junior on Jan. 20 could be released today.
Or it could never be released.
That decision is primarily up to the Overland Park Police Department, where the chief of police has said, because of officer safety and what he has called “a climate of anti-law enforcement sentiment in this country,” that he doesn’t intend for the name to ever be made public.
Kansas law generally allows police agencies to decide for themselves whether to release the names of officers involved in shootings, with the result that most of the biggest departments in the state don’t under any circumstances. The records holding that information can remain closed forever.
Other area police departments also choose not to release officers’ names, especially while the shooting is being investigated. But in Missouri they almost always become available when the investigation is finished, because of the state’s public records law.
The reluctance in Kansas and Missouri stands in stark contrast to common practice in cities across the country — from North Little Rock, Ark., to San Jose, Calif. — where the name of a police officer is released within days of a fatal shooting, even in a controversial case drawing threats against police.
Nationally, the question of how long police should wait before releasing an officer’s name has grown more contentious in recent years as police shootings have come under increased scrutiny.
But national police leaders generally assume the officer’s name will be made public eventually, as in Missouri.
Here as elsewhere, law enforcement officials who oppose releasing the names say it could interfere with an investigation or put officers in danger from retaliation.
“In my opinion it won’t be released, period,” Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez Jr. said recently when asked about the name of the officer who shot Blue Valley Northwest High School student John Albers. “I believe Kansas state law says we don’t have to release it.”
But open government advocates and police critics say the officers should be identified in the name of accountability and transparency. Some say not naming the officer creates a double standard: any other citizen who shoots someone will have their name made public immediately.
And making the officers’ names public allows observers to know if an officer has been involved in shootings before or has shown a pattern of excessive force. As it stands in Kansas, that’s often impossible to know.
“If the officer has a record for this kind of behavior, the public might never know it,” said Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2, or Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity.
“I think it’s outrageous,” McDonald said. “That’s a law we need to change, if that’s what the statute says.”
When The Star in 2015 examined a database of 47 fatal shootings by Kansas City police over a decade, it was able to obtain the officers’ names under the Missouri public records law. The analysis showed seven officers were involved in two shootings each.
In Kansas, whether an officer’s name is made public within days or kept secret forever can vary from agency to agency — and sometimes depending on circumstance.
As part of a recent investigation into transparency issues in Kansas, The Star found that most of the biggest police departments in the state, including Overland Park, would not release the names of officers in shootings even dating back to the 1980s.
That included the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department.
But that police department acted very differently after one recent shooting. When an off-duty police captain was hailed as a hero for shooting an armed man terrifying shoppers at a Lenexa Costco in November, the department was quick to release his name.
Kansas City, Kan., police released Michael Howell’s name the next day, while the investigation into the shooting was ongoing.
The Albers case
In Kansas, the public can find it hard to get information about a police shooting such as the one that left John Albers dead in front of his Overland Park home on Jan. 20.
In that case, police officials chose to release some details of the shooting the same day. The department issued a news release saying that officers had been called to the home to check on a suicidal person. As officers approached the home in the 9300 block of W. 149th Terrace, a garage door opened and a vehicle came out of the garage, headed rapidly toward one of the officers, the police statement said.
The officer shot and killed the driver. The release also said no officers were injured and that the shooting officer was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the Johnson County Officer-Involved Shooting Investigation Team.
Police did not say how many officers were at the scene or the number of shots fired, which neighbors estimated at six. Officials also have declined to describe further how the shooting unfolded or how the vehicle ended up across the street in a neighbor’s lawn.
The next day, the police department released Albers’ name and age. He had already been identified in media reports.
The following week, a city attorney initially refused to provide a copy of the police department’s use of force policy even though it is a public record. The city later provided it to The Star.
Nine days after the shooting, when The Star requested a police report from the shooting, a department records supervisor said that could take until Feb. 12.
The first page of that report, which by law is what police are required to release, typically contains the time and location of the incident and little else. It usually does not have the shooting officer’s name on it.
But it should, said Bernie Rhodes, an attorney who represents The Star and other media outlets on open records issues.
“How can we have confidence in police when they won’t tell us who’s doing anything?” Rhodes asked. “Police have authority because we trust them. It’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t play by the rules. If the police were to arrest me for shooting someone, the police would release my name to the public long before I was tried and convicted.”
Pete O’Malley, a spokesman for the Overland Park Fraternal Order of Police, said the rank and file in his department approve of the closed-mouth approach. They see the release of information as a threat to their safety or the integrity of the investigation.
“The less information that’s disseminated, the better,” O’Malley said. “We would be against the release of any name, especially early on in the investigation.
“In Overland Park it’s not the same level of concern as a major metropolitan area like Kansas City or St. Louis,” he continued. “But wherever you are, there’s a risk of retaliation.”
In any investigation, the control of information is favored by detectives who want to distinguish between a tipster who has first-hand information and one who is just repeating what they heard.
“We want the facts to play out before people rush to judgment,” O’Malley said. “The most important thing that I want to see is a fair investigation, that the officer gets a fair shake.”
The Johnson County investigation of the Albers shooting has been submitted to the office of District Attorney Stephen Howe, according to Kristi Bergeron, a spokeswoman for the office. She said Howe is reviewing the reports.
When he’s finished, Howe could choose to issue a report, in lesser or greater detail, explaining a decision on whether to file charges. But there’s no guarantee that all the facts will be made public.
In Kansas, a criminal investigation record might remain closed to the public forever if it is classified as “active” indefinitely. A lawsuit could require the disclosure of some records, including the name of the officer, but that would be up to a judge.
That shows the weakness of Kansas public records law, said Max Kautsch, an attorney and board member at the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.
“The public is not served by an open records law that allows the conduct of a public agency to be forever shrouded at the discretion of the agency that may have acted unreasonably,” he said.
Police elsewhere in the country have long taken a more open approach, sometimes even in the face of threats.
When officers in North Little Rock, Ark., fatally shot an armed teenager during a violent arrest on Jan. 7, threats against the police department persuaded officials to temporarily hold off on releasing the names of the three officers involved.
Instead of releasing the names as usual within three to five days, the North Little Rock Police Department waited 11 days.
The delay allowed police to take measures to protect the officers and their families, said North Little Rock Chief of Police Mike Davis. The department also released dash cam video that appears to show the teen firing a gun shortly before being killed.
Davis said that in his 32 years with the department, three to five days has always been the typical time it takes to release officers’ names.
Usually the main concern is for investigators to take the officers’ statements before their names are made public and people start calling them to talk about the incident. Once that has been done, police there usually find it best to officially release the names, Davis said. As in Missouri, the names become public record when the investigation is finished anyway.
“It’s not like it’s a big secret,” Davis said. “I think in this day and age, everybody talks about transparency. And I agree. You’ve got to get the information out there as quick as you can, because people need to know.”
In some cities where the release of officers’ names has become routine, agencies have adopted a policy of waiting 48 hours.
That was how long San Jose, Calif., police waited before releasing the names of two officers who on Jan. 9 shot and killed an intruder at a power plant armed with six-foot pipe and an ax.
Police in California have been required to release the names of officers in shootings since a 2014 decision by the state Supreme Court. The San Jose Police Department has been providing the names for years, usually within a few days, said Sgt. Enrique Garcia, a police department spokesman.
A 2016 guide to officer-involved shootings by the International Association of Chiefs of Police assumes that the officer’s name will be released at some point, though it acknowledges the immediate safety concerns.
“The longer the law enforcement agency withholds this information, the greater the appearance that the agency is protecting its own personnel at the expense of transparency within the community,” the guide says.
Such suspicions came to mind immediately for McDonald, of More2. Without knowing the officer’s name, McDonald said, it is more difficult to check if state officials took action against the officer’s law enforcement certification, or if the officer moved on to work in another police department.
“And as a public employee to boot, that’s ridiculous,” she said.
Last year, The Star filed open records requests with a dozen Kansas law enforcement agencies asking for information about all officer-involved shootings since 1980.
Four of the five largest police departments, which have the bulk of the shootings, declined to release the names of officers involved, citing exemptions in the Kansas Open Records Act. Those were Overland Park, Olathe, Wichita and Kansas City, Kan.
Of the five, Topeka was the exception, releasing the names.
Some agencies, including Kansas City, Kan., wouldn’t even release the name of the person shot.
The departments that refused to release the names of officers predominantly cited two discretionary exemptions to the Kansas Open Records Act: personnel records and records that would “endanger the life or physical safety of any person.”
Overland Park went further, citing several other exemptions to the state sunshine law referencing the protection of undercover agents and informants, census and research records, and personal privacy.
The police department provided some records of officer-involved shootings since 1985 to The Star last July, including the time, date, location and information about the person shot.
But new legislation in Kansas could require that more records of police shooting investigations eventually see the light of day.
A bill recently introduced in the Kansas Legislature by Rep. John Alcala, a Topeka Democrat, would stop criminal investigation records from being left “inactive” — and thus closed to the public — forever.
Instead, criminal investigations would be defined as closed when certain conditions are met, including the passage of time or a decision not to pursue a case, after which the records would be available.
The bill, spurred by controversy over the fatal shooting by police of Dominique White in September, also requires police body camera video to be released to the public in cases of deadly or excessive force.