Overland Park’s city manager “began the termination process” against Police Chief Frank Donchez, but he quickly decided to resign before he could be fired, officials told The Star on Friday.
City Manager Lori Curtis Luther considered a conversation Monday between Donchez and Sheila Albers — the mother of a teenager who was killed by an officer — to be “inappropriate and grounds for termination,” city spokeswoman Meg Ralph said.
Luther took steps to fire Donchez, she said, but he resigned on Tuesday.
“Basic empathy and progressive policing policies are essential for any police chief in Overland Park,” Luther said in a statement to The Star.
Donchez’s resignation allowed the city to immediately sever ties with him, while a termination would have given him the opportunity to appeal, Ralph said.
The city’s statement contradicts an interview Donchez gave to The Washington Post on Wednesday, which quoted him saying he resigned for personal reasons. He said that he was not forced to resign and that he left because of family matters, rather than because of Albers.
Donchez’s resignation came about a year after Luther took over as city manager. Bill Ebel retired that spring after 11 years in the city’s top role, during which Donchez was hired.
City officials have yet to comment on whether Donchez and Luther got along. But tensions have built over the past year after four Overland Park police officers were placed on administrative leave. 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.
But ultimately, Donchez’s tenure unraveled during a “heated exchange” at the Overland Park City Council meeting where he spoke with Albers, the city said. Her 17-year-old son John had a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by an officer on Jan. 20, 2018.
Activists called for the removal of Donchez following the teen’s death.
Albers said Friday she was glad the city released more information about the circumstances of Donchez’s exit.
“I am fully confident that Overland Park will have a rigorous process and choose an outstanding new Chief of Police,” she said.
The shooting of her son resulted in a $2.3 million wrongful death settlement and a $70,000 severance paid out to Clayton Jenison, the officer who shot the teen. He 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 Mayor Curt Skoog recounting her conversation hours earlier with Donchez. She had asked him about the CPOST form and an interview where he said Jenison had quit before he could be reprimanded or encouraged to leave. According to CPOST records, Jenison left the department 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,” Albers 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.’”
“It is clear Donchez justifies the use of force because in his mind we failed as parents. Victim blaming at its worst,” Albers wrote, adding that her parenting is irrelevant to “the changes that need to be made” in the department.
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.” Albers ended the email by saying she said what needed to be said and did not need the city to do anything.
That exchange came after nearly a decade of turbulence with Donchez at the top of the department. While some in Overland Park have praised Donchez and his leadership, others have said he failed to regain their trust after the Albers shooting and have called for him to be replaced with a more progressive leader.
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.
In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas accused the Overland Park Police Department of 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 promoted.
Donchez began his law enforcement career in 1981 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, eventually became police chief there and later practiced as a lawyer. He later worked as chief of police in Davenport, Iowa, before Overland Park hired him in 2014.
Donchez is eligible for standard post-employment benefits, Overland Park officials said, but did not receive a severance.
The city has appointed Deputy Chief Simon Happer to serve as interim police chief while city conducts a national search for the department’s next leader.