UPDATE: Overland Park city officials say they were starting termination procedures against Frank Donchez when he decided to resign. Read the latest news.
Frank Donchez’s ability to effectively lead one of the largest police forces in Kansas was called into question just a few years into his time as chief of the Overland Park Police Department.
Four years after moving to Kansas, one of Donchez’s officers shot and killed John Albers, 17, who was experiencing a mental health crisis. The police shooting was highly publicized and criticized, causing some in the community to lose faith in the chief.
Some even called for him to resign, which he eventually did on Tuesday after a terse conversation with the teen’s mother, Sheila Albers, who has been an activist since her son’s death. Her own investigations have shed light on how the department handled the shooting.
Top city officials have not responded to questions about whether Donchez’s resignation was connected to that incident.
Donchez told The Washington Post on Wednesday evening that he was not forced to resign and that he left because of family matters, rather than because of Albers.
“Absolutely. I resigned, I’ve got a lot of things going on back home in Pennsylvania and that is drawing me back home, to be with family,” he told The Post. “My conversation [with Albers] was my conversation. Obviously we haven’t seen eye to eye for five-and-a-half years. I guess I didn’t expect that was going to change anytime ever.”
But questions continue to surround Donchez’s abrupt departure. Some who know him spoke highly of a leader who cared deeply for his community and his faith. Others say he failed to regain the trust of the community he served.
“We believe in honest and transparent government; that starts with leadership. The resignation of Chief Donchez gives the city of Overland Park a new opportunity to ensure those values are present in the person they select for this essential role,” Lora McDonald, with MORE2, a local civil rights organization, said in a statement Wednesday.
Donchez had a challenging tenure for reasons other than the handling of the Albers shooting.
In 2019, Donchez faced criticism after defending an officer who handcuffed and arrested a Shawnee Mission eighth-grader who formed her fingers into a pretend gun and aimed at her classmates.
“I’ll take the heat all day long for arresting a 13-year-old,” Donchez told The Star in October 2019. “I’m not willing to take the heat for not preventing a school tragedy.”
In 2020, The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas accused the Overland Park Police Department for an “overly reactive and militarized response” to a Black Lives Matter protest.
In February 2021, two police officers filed a lawsuit alleging Donchez “discriminated and denied promotions on the basis of age, gender and race.” The suit was dismissed, but during the course of litigation, they were awarded promotions.
More than a year ago, four Overland Park police officers were placed on paid administrative leave; their status remained unchanged Wednesday. The Johnson County District Attorney’s Office has said it is investigating criminal allegations involving a police nonprofit where three of the officers served as directors.
Donchez has so far declined an interview with The Star.
His resignation comes about a year after Lori Curtis Luther took over as city manager. Bill Ebel retired in spring 2022 after 11 years in the city’s top role, during which Donchez was hired.
Luther and Mayor Curt Skoog have not responded to requests for comment.
McDonald, with MORE2, said she hopes “that they will include community engagement as a critical element of the search process for a new Overland Park Chief of Police.”
A pastor’s view of Frank Donchez
Pastor Darwin Neal in his many years working at a moving company, rarely had a paying customer stop to chat.
But Donchez did.
The two met in 2014, as Neal helped unload a moving truck in front of Donchez’s new home in Overland Park when he took over as police chief.
Neal said Donchez’s love for people was immediately obvious. But what they quickly bonded over was their faith in Jesus. Neal, in addition to being a pastor at Anointed House of Glory Church in Martin City, is also a chaplain for the Grandview Police Department.
Reached by phone Thursday, Neal had nothing but glowing reviews of Donchez, who he said is more like a brother to him than a friend.
Soon after they met, Donchez invited Neal to join him in pastoring to prisoners at Lansing Correctional Facility south of Leavenworth.
They made the trip north about once a month until the pandemic hit, Neal said.
“He shared hope for a better life, even where they are, and a better life when they get out, and a new direction,” Neal said. “There’s no better man that I could ever think of to have the responsibility of law enforcement than that man.”
He also invited Donchez to speak at his church a few times, as well as at Trinity Temple Church of God in Christ in Grandview, one of the largest Black churches in the metro.
One evening in 2016, while at Trinity, Donchez spoke about the need for more minority police officers in the metro area, “saying it could help bring communities and police closer together,” Channel 41 reported at the time.
“He’s infectious in the way that he deals with minorities,” said Neal, who is Black.
Neal texted Donchez on Tuesday evening, when he saw the news, to say he was praying for him. They spoke over the phone Thursday, and Neal said it’s his impression Donchez stepped down as the result of the conversation with Albers.
“Being a leader means, if someone else makes a mistake, their mistake is your responsibility,” Neal said. “I believe that’s why he quit. He felt a personal responsibility for the actions of one of his officers.”
He added that if someone asked Donchez to go a mile for them, he’d go two.
“Overland Park has lost a servant to the community,” Neal said.
Career in law enforcement
Donchez began his law enforcement career in 1981 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, working his way up the ranks to police chief. He then spent several years as police chief in Davenport, Iowa.
Craig Malin, a former Davenport city administrator who was Donchez’s supervisor, said the former police chief improved the department throughout his tenure and decreased crime in the city by about a third.
During the interview process, Malin said he and a few other Davenport officials traveled to Bethlehem to meet with Donchez’s references in person. At the time, Donchez was working as a lawyer in private practice after several years as a police commissioner.
Donchez introduced Malin to his past co-workers at the Bethlehem Police Department, and they greeted him with hugs “like he was a long lost brother.” No one had a bad word to say about Donchez, Malin said.
His hiring in Davenport was controversial at first among some officers, who thought someone from within the department deserved the position. But Malin said Donchez quickly won the department over.
“He was a very straightforward gentleman,” Malin said. “He was supportive of employee development. He had high expectations for their performance, but he was empathetic and caring and people understood that he was there for the broad public mission of law enforcement.”
Donchez always looked for new ways to learn and improve. After starting his career in Bethlehem law enforcement, he earned his law degree and practiced for a few years. Later, he also got his pilot’s license and once flew with Malin’s son to help him earn a Boy Scout aviation merit badge.
“I literally trusted the life of my son to him,” Malin said.
An abrupt resignation
On Wednesday afternoon, the city issued a new statement, saying Donchez submitted his resignation to Luther, the city manager, on Tuesday. Meg Ralph, an Overland Park spokeswoman, provided no reason for his departure, saying the city “does not comment on personnel information.”
The city’s statement Wednesday also described an encounter Monday between Donchez and Albers, the mother of the teen killed by police in 2018.
After Monday’s city council meeting, Albers and Donchez had a “heated exchange,” according to Wednesday’s email from the city.
On Jan. 20, 2018, Overland Park police were called to a welfare check at the Albers’ home. As the teenager was backing the family minivan out of the driveway, officer Clayton Jenison fired 13 shots at him, striking him six times. Jenison said he feared for his life and opened fire after the teen ignored commands to stop.
The shooting resulted in a $2.3 million wrongful death settlement.
After the shooting, Sheila Albers and her husband organized an advocacy group — JOCO United — with goals of improving how police respond to people in mental distress and of increasing government transparency.
Albers became a vocal advocate for police reform, critiquing police use of force even before the high-profile deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
Albers raised questions about the team that responded to her son and about a $70,000 severance paid out to Jenison.
Jenison was allowed to resign under “ordinary circumstances,” according to a form submitted to the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training, which licenses police officers in the state.
Late Monday night, Albers sent an email to Luther and Skoog recounting her conversation hours earlier with Donchez. She asked him about an interview he did shortly after the shooting, saying Jenison had left the department before he could be reprimanded or encouraged to leave. According to CPOST records, Jenison left on March 4, 2018, about six weeks after he shot John Albers.
“I pushed Donchez hard on the lies he told in that interview and his response was asking me if I have ever lied before. I told him I have not lied in a professional setting like that,” she wrote. “He then said, ‘I am sure you and Steve tell everyone you were the best parents.’”
She replied, “John struggled with his mental health.”
According to her email, “Donchez replied, ‘And you left him at his time of need.’”
In her email, she claimed Donchez told her that “he will keep being the Chief until he retires and I can keep hoping he is not.”
She ended the email by saying she said what needed to be said and did not need the city to do anything.
The city appointed Deputy Chief Simon Happer to serve as interim police chief until officials can conduct a national search to hire a new police chief.
The Star’s Katie Moore contributed reporting.