Crime

After police kill Overland Park teen, new advocacy group is a call to action

Advocacy group JOCO United formed after John Albers shooting death

17-year-old John Albers was shot and killed by Overland Park police on Jan. 20 as the suicidal teen backed a minivan down his family's driveway. Several distraught Overland Park residents have formed advocacy group JOCO United.
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17-year-old John Albers was shot and killed by Overland Park police on Jan. 20 as the suicidal teen backed a minivan down his family's driveway. Several distraught Overland Park residents have formed advocacy group JOCO United.

The pain from 17-year-old John Albers’ shooting death by Overland Park police lands freshly almost daily in his parents’ mailbox.

College fliers, in a blindly brutal pulse, urge him to imagine a future on their campuses. John would have been starting his senior year at Blue Valley Northwest High School this month.

This is the kind of despair and anger Steve and Sheila Albers have carried since the shooting Jan. 20, they told The Star. And they are struggling to find a legacy in their son’s death.

Now an advocacy group recently launched by friends and supporters — JOCO United — is giving the parents hope.

The group shaped itself out of their love for the Albers family and the Overland Park community, the parents said.

“People from all walks of life were devastated and shaken by such a senseless act and the exceedingly poor response,” the parents wrote in an email to The Star on Thursday. “These conversations grew into a call to action.”

“Our family, friends, colleagues and school communities have rallied around us to support us emotionally and also to help right an injustice.”

Overland Park Police Department dashcam footage of the fatal officer-involved shooting of 17-year-old John Albers. WARNING: THIS VIDEO CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT.

On Jan. 20, John was suicidal, and someone who feared for his life called 911 to ask police to check on his welfare. As the teen was backing his family’s minivan out of the garage and down the driveway, he was shot and killed by one of the first Overland Park officers to arrive at the home.

A month later, after a multi-jurisdictional investigation, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe concluded the officer reasonably feared for his life as the van was backing out, and he called the shooting justified.

Howe’s finding, John’s parents said, was “shocking and infuriating.”

Sheila Albers sued the officer and the city, saying the use of lethal force was reckless, deliberate and excessive. The lawsuit is pending.

Many people were disturbed by the shooting and by the district attorney’s findings, said Mark Schmid of Overland Park, who helped found JOCO United.

They want to bridge the divide standing between them and the city’s police and political leaders so they can work together.

“How can something positive come from the death of John Albers?” he said. So much of the conversation in the community “has been strident,” he said. “We want improved relationships with police” and to peel away at “an unfortunate us-versus-them mentality.”

Their mission is still evolving, but they’ve identified some goals, he said.

Help the police department improve how officers respond to people who have mental illness or who are in mental distress.

Increase transparency in government and provide more access to public records.

Grow partnerships with police and public agencies to develop policies that serve and protect the community.

“There are solutions,” said Doug Westerhaus, who’s also part of JOCO United. But he also sees the difficulties.

Dash camera video of the shooting, released to the public with the district attorney’s findings, came as a jolt to many people, he said.

The lawsuit, the court processes and hidden internal police investigations have acted as a barrier to conversations, he said.

JOCO United is not opposed to police, Westerhaus said. The group is asking itself, he said, “How do we stay positive about things like this and work together without getting the government to recoil?”

JOCO United is opening up its next meeting to the public, 7 p.m. Aug. 29 at the Scheels Overland Park Soccer Complex fieldhouse, 13700 Switzer Road.

The group is still planning how it will approach police and government officials to join in its work. A request by The Star to police and City Hall last week to comment on JOCO United went unanswered.

Steve and Sheila Albers see the group giving the community voice. It “will be their vehicle for change,” they wrote.

“How we honor John’s life and legacy will evolve as his friends and family heal,” the parents said. “We have no doubt that it will be something amazing.”

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