Family of 39-year-old man shot and killed to sue Independence police for wrongful death
The family of a 39-year-old man shot and killed by Independence police last year is suing the two officers involved in the shooting in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Civil rights attorney Harry Daniels, who is representing the Pryor family, told The Star he will be revising the family’s complaint to also sue the city of Independence, if their case reveals a pattern of the department “violating people’s rights and getting away with it.”
“We don’t have that information at this time,” he said. “That’s something we can find out after the suit is filed through the courts of discovery.”
The lawsuit, set to be filed by Thursday afternoon, accuses Independence officers Hunter Soule and Jamie Welsh of wrongfully killing Tyrea Pryor, 39, following a police pursuit and crash that ended near the intersection of U.S. 24 and Noland Road on March 11, 2022.
The incident has come under scrutiny as video footage of the shooting shared by the attorneys shows Independence police struggling to determine whether Pryor was reaching for a weapon before his death.
Missouri State Highway Patrol investigative interviews with Soule, Welsh and other Independence officers who responded to the crash site reveal that a pill bottle hidden in Pryor’s waistband may have been mistaken for a pistol, spurring the shooting. Police fired more than 20 shots into Pryor’s vehicle and he was declared dead at the scene.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced in March that while “it was indisputable Pryor did not have a gun in his hand,” due to the “reasonable belief” that a threat was being posed to police, the case would not be criminally prosecuted by her office.
Jackson County Prosecutor's letter on Tyrea Pryor shooting by The Kansas City Star on Scribd
In the following weeks Pryor’s family rallied against Baker’s decision and their attorney urged the Department of Justice to investigate the case further.
Daniels said he has been in touch with the department about the case, but refused to comment further on whether there is an ongoing investigation.
“Independence has a lot of issues,” Daniels said over the phone Wednesday. “They have been sued multiple times.”
He believes there is a long list of unarmed people who have been killed by Independence police and hopes to discover whether the department has made any corrections or policy changes related to how officers are disciplined.
Family of Pryor plan on sharing their thoughts Thursday at 1 p.m. by the Justice and Dignity Center as part of a press conference, where more details about the lawsuit will be released to the public.
Ebony Findley, the mother of Pryor’s teen son, told The Star in a 2022 interview that she had been skeptical of the police officers’ account of the shooting.
At first, Findley heard from investigators that Tyrea Pryor had displayed a weapon, she said. Later she was told a shootout had ensued.
“We’re more confused than anything,” she said. “We keep getting different stories.”
Independence police were not immediately available to respond for comment.
Interviews conducted with Independence police by the Missouri State Highway Patrol show that the the events leading to the fatal police shooting started just before 8 p.m. on March 11, 2022.
At that time, Officer Hunter Soule was called to 803 East College Street on reports of a man, Tyrea Pryor, and two women pounding on the door of a 911 caller.
In a statement, one of the women said she had gone to the residence to get items back for the other woman. But an argument ensued. As Officer Soule set off his sirens, the man and two women jumped into their white vehicle to flee.
Officer Soule said he witnessed Pryor grab an unknown item from the back of the vehicle before taking off. But the car sped away before he could get a closer look.
Video footage released by attorneys of the Pryor family shows the aftermath of the crash as officers walked up to the vehicle and ordered a female passenger to get out.
Both Officer Soule and Officer Welsh held Pryor at gunpoint, unable to open the driver’s side door due to damage from the crash, according to interviews.
Officer Soule said he repeatedly told Pryor to keep his hands up, but he continued to “dip his hands down and reached down toward his waistband.”
Officers said in the interviews they also worried that they could not clearly see Pryor’s hands from looking through the driver’s side window since the airbags had been deployed and the window glass was shattered.
Officer Steele, who arrived on the scene following the crash, hopped into Pryor’s back seat and spotted a silver assault rifle wedged between the 39-year-old’s leg and the vehicle’s center console. He told Pryor:
“Hey, quit reaching [for the gun] or I’m going to shoot you,” according to interviews.
At that point, he said Pryor stopped reaching for the gun. Officer Steele attempted to remove the firearm from the vehicle, but struggled to pull it from his seat. Then he heard someone say: “He’s reaching again, He’s reaching again.”
Officer Welsh, who was standing in front of the windshield, which had been shattered from the crash, said he believed he saw Pryor pulling a gun from his waistband. He yelled “Gun!”
Then, police started to fire their weapons. Pryor was shot 15 times.
In the video, an officer is overheard saying, “I don’t see a pistol” following the shooting.
None of the five officers, who had been at the scene and interviewed by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, reported seeing a handgun in the vehicle after the shooting.