Kansas disciplinary board dismisses complaint with prosecutor’s false account of police shooting

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TOPEKA — A secretive Kansas disciplinary board has dismissed a complaint against Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe for releasing a false narrative about the 2018 police killing of John Albers.

The Office of the Disciplinary Administrator concluded the complaint had merit but chose only to issue Howe a letter of caution, according to a letter obtained by Kansas Reflector.

Overland Park police officer Clayton Jenison shot and killed Albers in 2018 after responding to a 911 call from friends who worried the 17-year-old was suicidal. The officer resigned his position, and the city in 2019 settled a lawsuit with Sheila Albers, John’s mother, for $2.3 million, according to a KCUR report.

Howe issued a news release a month after the shooting in which he explained his decision not to file criminal charges against the police officer. But a 2022 report by the U.S. Justice Department, based on police dash cam video, contradicted Howe’s account.

Sheila Albers, John’s mother, filed a complaint with the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator in 2022 alleging Howe violated a rule of professional conduct that prohibits attorneys from making false statements.

In a letter dated Monday, disciplinary administrator Gayle Larkin informed Sheila Albers that her complaint had been dismissed, even though a review committee “did not find the complaint to be meritless.” The committee was concerned with Howe’s conduct, she wrote, but determined his inaccurate account of the shooting was an expression of opinion.

While dismissing the complaint, the office issued a letter of caution to Howe.

“We cautioned Mr. Howe that when he chooses to issue a press release, he must ensure that all statements contained within the press release are accurate,” Larkin wrote.

Howe, in response to an inquiry for this story, said he was grateful for the “dismissal of this complaint after a careful investigation.”

Sheila Albers said she wished the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator would have taken stronger action. The district attorney of the state’s most populous county shouldn’t need to be told to speak truthfully — “yet, here we are,” she said.

“When local government and/or police departments either withhold information or release a false narrative, they exacerbate the trauma, leaving long-lasting effects, and prevent communities from healing,” Sheila Albers said in an email. “False statements rob families of their loved one’s name. This breeds mistrust and damages the relationship between local government and the community.”

According to the DOJ summary, John Albers posted social media videos indicating he might harm himself, causing friends to call 911. After two police officers arrived at the residence, John Albers slowly backed out of the garage in a Honda Odyssey. Jenison, who didn’t identify himself as a police officer, stepped out of the vehicle’s way and fired two shots into the minivan.

The minivan briefly paused, then picked up speed, reversed past the officer and sharply spun around so that it was facing the street. The teenager then slowly backed toward the home. Jennison was to the side of the vehicle when he fired 11 shots into the car in about three seconds.

The entire sequence of events took 14 seconds. Jennison struck John Albers six times, including in the head, neck and upper torso. He died at the scene.

The DOJ declined to pursue criminal charges because there was not enough evidence to prove the officer willfully used unreasonable force, the standard under federal law.

In Howe’s account, which was not supported by video evidence, the teenager “suddenly” and “rapidly” accelerated the minivan while the officer was “directly in the path.”

Police “were there to stop a young man from committing suicide,” Howe’s news release said. “They never got that opportunity.”

Sheila Albers said she would like to see local and state government establish laws to force the disclosure of body camera footage. Current open records law excludes police video records from public disclosure.

“Increased transparency will deter false narratives,” she said.

The Office the Disciplinary Administrator operates under total secrecy except and until the office determines an attorney has violated the rules of professional conduct. Complaints and investigative findings that result in the dismissal of a complaint are not a public record.

The office rarely sanctions prosecutors. A 2020 investigation by Kansas Reflector found multiple cases in which complaints against prosecutors had dragged on for more than five years, even when there was compelling evidence of misconduct.

The office initially cleared former Shawnee County prosecutor Jacqie Spradling of wrongdoing in a complaint filed by Alma attorney Keen Umbehr, then reopened the disciplinary case when the Kansas Supreme Court overturned a murder conviction because Spradling had repeatedly lied to the jury. She eventually was disbarred.

In 2022, Kansas Reflector reported on concerns with Neosho County prosecutor Linus Thuston’s conduct. The disciplinary office has determined three times that Thuston committed ethics violations but allowed him to keep practicing law. The office had found him to be negligent in his duties but pointed to letters of support from people in the community — including one he admitted he wrote himself.

Umbehr said his experience with the disciplinary office leads him to believe that with the exception of disbarring Spradling, the office “does all it can not to find sanctionable violations” by prosecutors.

“I proffer that this is done so that the public will not begin to distrust the criminal justice system,” Umbehr said. “It holds up the false impression that the criminal justice system is morally correct and justifiable in all its acts, statements and procedures.”

He pointed to video published by KCTV-5 that shows the police killing of John Albers.

“I ask you to watch the video again and then consider whether and to what extent DA Howe’s statement is a lie,” Umbehr said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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