How a Community Organization is Enacting Change in Johnson County

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Written by Tressa McIff

On January 20, 2018, 17-year-old John Albers was shot and killed by a police officer outside his home in Overland Park.

The police had been called because Albers, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest, had been threatening suicide to a friend he was talking to online. After the police arrived at his home, Albers attempted to back his mother’s minivan out of the garage, and one police officer fired 13 shots at the vehicle, killing Albers.

The community was distraught after this incident, and a few citizens decided that they needed to do something about it. A few months later, Johnson County (JOCO) United was formed.

JOCO United is a citizen-run organization that is working to bring better mental health services to Johnson County police departments. “We are an advocacy group seeking to promote change for a better mental health response,” said JOCO United President Mark Schmid.

One of the main goals of JOCO United is to increase Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training within Johnson County police departments. CIT training is a “community partnership” between mental health professionals, police officers, and people affected by mental health and addiction problems, according to citinternational.org.

Currently, Johnson County police officers get a small amount of training in handling mental health situations, but they are not trained to be experts. To help deal with these situations, mental health professionals, called co-responders, are sometimes sent to assist the police officers. However, the co-responders are not available 24/7.

JOCO United wants to get more professional mental health assistance available around the clock. In order to do achieve this objective, they are working with city officials as well as professionals outside of Johnson County, such as the Topeka Police Department.

The Topeka Police Department is fairly similar to Johnson County’s, except they have a dedicated mental health unit that is available 24/7. “There is a culture within the Topeka Police Department that acknowledges that mental health is a big concern,” said Schmid. All new recruits are required to go through a 40-hour CIT training course, and mental health professionals are asked to assist when the police get a call related to mental health.

Achieving these goals, however, is harder than it may seem. Money within the police departments is not being appropriately put toward mental health services. Often times when money is used for mental health, it is to admit those suffering to hospitals or arrest and book them into jail, not provide instantaneous care when the police are called.

“Mental health is a lost or forgotten part of society,” said JOCO United member Christi Bright. Many people aren’t even aware that mental health services are an important part of a healthy society, much less an essential aspect to police work.

JOCO United is also trying to promote transparency between the police and the public. However, they have run into some problems while trying to achieve this goal. Schmid has been attempting to get public records regarding the shooting of Albers, but the police are not willing to give them up. He began sending out Kansas Public Records Act requests but believes that the records will not be released unless a lawsuit is filed.

Despite encountering some issues when dealing with the police, JOCO United wants it to be clear that they are not anti-police. “This is not a community group that has organized to speak negatively about the police,” Bright said.

Instead of working against the police, JOCO United wants everybody—city officials, police officers, and community members—to work together to come up with a solution that will ensure that mental health situations are better handled in order to create a better environment for everybody involved.

Despite being a fairly new organization, JOCO United has made large strides in the pursuit of better mental health services within the police department. They already have dozens of concerned community members attending public meetings and have over 500 followers on Facebook. “People are in accord with what we’re trying to do. It’s just a question of getting it done…We’re not going to let them rest,” Schmid said.

Edit: We have updated the first line of the article to specify the year of the incident, 2018, to avoid any confusion; and, to change the position of the video in the article.