Federal civil rights charges won't be filed against a Kansas police officer who killed teenage driver
Federal prosecutors announced Friday that they will not pursue criminal civil rights charges against a Kansas police officer who fatally shot a teenager in 2018 during a wellness check.
The Department of Justice's decision comes almost two years after an investigation was opened into the killing of John Albers, 17, whose death in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park reignited the national outcry over police use of excessive force.
"At this time, there is insufficient evidence to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer willfully committed a violation of the federal criminal civil rights statute," the Department of Justice said in a statement. "Specifically, the evidence does not clear the high bar that the Supreme Court has set for meeting this standard, and the department has therefore closed its investigation into this matter."
The Overland Park police officer, Clayton Jenison, had been on the force for about two years at the time of the shooting. He eventually agreed to resign — with a $70,000 severance package — despite the fact that Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe had cleared him of wrongdoing.
In making the announcement that no charges would be filed, Howe released dashcam video and said Jenison, who said he feared for his life, was justified in his actions when he opened fire 13 times.
But Albers' parents have long disputed the police department's narrative over what happened, blasting local prosecutors' investigation as being biased and lacking competence.
Despite the lack of federal charges, the Albers family said in a statement that they believe the FBI conducted a "thorough and impartial review."
"The transparency, empathy, and compassion the professionals at DOJ and the FBI exhibited helped us feel supported — and it honored John," the family said. "Again, this was not the treatment we received from our local law enforcement and city leaders, who chose to dishonor our son."
Albers' parents had pushed for files in the case to be made public, which finally happened in April 2021, when the city of Overland Park released a redacted 500-page report along with photos, videos of additional dashcam footage, and an interview conducted with Jenison after the shooting. NBC affiliate KSHB in Kansas City, Missouri, had also sued Overland Park for the release of those investigative files.
The files included social media posts and journal entries in which Albers, a high school junior, appeared to be struggling with mental health issues.
On Jan. 20, 2018, police were called to his home after a friend expressed concern that he may be intoxicated and feeling suicidal, saying he had threatened to stab himself with a knife.
At the time of the call, just before dusk, Albers was home alone while his family had gone out for dinner.
Dashcam videos and a neighbor's security camera showed Jenison and another officer arriving at the home. They stayed for a few minutes outside and did not knock on the front door or identify themselves. Eventually, the garage door of the home swung open, and Jenison unholstered his weapon and moved toward the door as a minivan, which Albers was driving, began to back out slowly and in a straight line.
Jenison reacted, aiming his weapon and yelling, "Stop, stop, stop." Jenison, who was standing to the right of the van, fired twice toward Albers.
In a lawsuit filed by the family against the city and Jenison, the Alberses contend that one or both of the bullets struck the teenager, "incapacitating him and rendering him unable to control the minivan."
The car stopped, but then speeded up in reverse, making a U-turn in the driveway and backing up. Jenison fired 11 more shots, and the minivan pulled forward, past another police car that had just approached, and coasted in neutral into the driveway of a home across the street, according to the report and dashcam video.
An autopsy report later showed that six bullets had struck Albers. A toxicology report indicated that he had not been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In an interview with investigators following the shooting, Jenison said that he had taken cover outside of the home because he didn't know if Albers would "self-harm or if he also has homicidal tendencies."
The Department of Justice said Friday that the focus of its review was to determine whether federal prosecutors could prove, in part, that Jenison had deprived Albers of his constitutional rights, including by "willfully using unreasonable force against the person." But investigators added that the federal government has no statute that criminalizes a police officer's use of unreasonable force "if willfulness cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
The Albers family settled its complaint against Overland Park and Jenison in 2019 for $2.3 million, The Washington Post reported, although the city and Jenison did not admit liability and Overland Park said it settled to avoid the cost and length of a lawsuit.
NBC News reached out to Jenison and the Johnson County District Attorney's Office for comment following the Department of Justice's decision in the case.
In a joint response, the Overland Park Police Department and the city of Overland Park said their respective officials cooperated with the federal investigation.
Federal investigators noted that the decision not to bring charges in Albers' death "does not alter the fact that his loss was an unnecessary tragedy," and highlighted how a federal district court overseeing the lawsuit had ruled that a reasonable jury could conclude the officer did use unreasonable force when he fired the first two shots at Albers.
"The federal criminal investigation found no substantial evidence inconsistent with that conclusion," the Department of Justice said.
The Albers family said in response that "we cannot ignore the underlying theme of the DOJ's statement: local officials failed in their investigation, failed to bring viable state charges, and ignored the fact that a jury could definitely find that the officer used unreasonable force."
Since Albers' death, Overland Park has overhauled its department and policies, creating a separate mental-health unit to respond to calls and banning police from shooting into a moving car.
"But there is still work to be done," the Albers family said. "We need more crisis-intervention training for all our officers who step up to serve us every day. We need a top-down culture of transparency and compassion in local government and law enforcement."
Under the Biden administration, federal prosecutors have pursued federal civil rights charges against police officers in other high-profile cases, most recently against two current and two former police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, involved in a raid that led to the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old medical worker.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com