‘It’s a shock’: Kansas City officer tackled their son. He died and they want justice

A Shawnee couple spent weeks during the fall of 2017 wondering how their son ended up in a Kansas City hospital bed on life support with multiple brain hemorrhages.

All they were told was it involved police and an investigation was ongoing.

Don and Carolyn Prince sat by their son Brian’s hospital bed day after day, his faced bruised purple with a row of large staples lining the left side of his head. Carolyn Prince would lean toward her son and tell him, “Brian, it’s mom. We’re here and you’re going to be OK.”

But when he took a turn for the worse he was moved to hospice. He died five days later.

Still without answers, the Princes hired an attorney to help get details about their son’s death. The Kansas City Police Department later released information revealing an officer tackled Prince, 45, at a Walmart store.

Surveillance video obtained by The Star showed the officer take Prince to the ground with enough force that one of his shoes flew off, landing several feet away as his head slammed into the tile floor.

“Why did that police officer feel that he needed to throw him head first into the concrete floor and kill him?” Don Prince said during an interview last week with The Star. “I don’t get that. I’ll never understand that.”

They want to see justice for their son, the couple said, and changes within the police department, which has been plagued by allegations of excessive force, including the deaths of several unarmed men.

The Princes are suing the officer who caused Brian Prince’s fatal injuries. The police department said it generally does not comment on pending civil litigation to “ensure fairness for all sides involved.”

While the officer’s actions may not be indicative of a criminal indictment, Lauren Bonds, the legal director of the National Police Accountability Project, said Prince’s death “warrants public scrutiny.”

“This arrest resulted in someone dying over about $523. I think that that is never an acceptable result,” said Bonds, who reviewed the surveillance video and some of the documents obtained by The Star.

The police department does not appear to have notified the public or news media about Prince’s death. The Star learned about the incident recently while analyzing use of force data obtained through a Sunshine Law request.

‘No intent to hurt the guy’

On Sept. 2, 2017, Brian Prince was suspected of trying to steal $523.44 in merchandise from the Walmart Supercenter at 1701 W. 133rd St., just off of State Line Road on the city’s far south side.

Prince was seen on live surveillance cameras walking around the store with a loaded shopping cart, pausing in aisles to remove security devices. He had been using a pry-bar taken from a store shelf to open packages when he was approached by two officers.

Officer Chris Viesselman called out to him with something like, “Hey, bud,” Viesselman told a sergeant during a recorded interview after the incident. Prince started backing up. Viesselman yelled “Don’t run.” Prince fled.

Viesselman chased after Prince as he ran for the store’s south exit. Officer Judith Harris went another way, trying to flank Prince. When Viesselman rounded a corner near the doorway, he saw Prince struggling to break away from Harris and went in for a tackle.

Just inside the first doorway, Viesselman grabbed Prince by the waist, whipped him around and to the ground. Prince landed face-first on the tile floor. His left shoe flew several feet. Blood poured from his head almost immediately, according to surveillance video recently obtained by The Star through a public records request.

Officers called an ambulance. For a few minutes, Viesselman can be seen resting on Prince’s backside as Prince lay motionless, apart from breathing. One customer passing by with her shopping cart appeared to gasp, wincing and bringing her hand toward her face as she caught a glimpse. Other onlookers sidestepped the area until the doorway is shut down by Walmart staff.

Police Chief Rick Smith, who had been sworn in as chief only a couple weeks prior, also responded to the scene, as did additional investigators.

“So no intent to hurt the guy, your intent was just to take him into custody?” a police sergeant asked Viesselman when he gave a statement three days after the incident.

“Correct,” Viesselman replied.

Under a police union contract, officers are given 48 hours to give a statement, a length of time that some activists in Kansas City is already too long. The family’s lawyer said he was told Viesselman was brought in a day late because it was a holiday weekend.

Viesselman is assigned to the investigations bureau and is on full duty, the department said this month.

An apparent one-sided investigation

Bonds, with the National Police Accountability Project, said there were potentially other ways of apprehending Prince in a less violent manner. She questioned what the benefit would be of tackling Prince inside a crowded store during working hours when customers were present.

“There were potentially other more effective takedown maneuvers that could have been able to stop him once they were able to catch up with him and gain control of him rather than that immediate, violent takedown,” she said.

The investigation of the incident appeared one-sided and based on an assumption of no wrongdoing by the officers involved, Bonds said. Questions asked of the officers days later appeared to arrive at a pre-drawn conclusion, she added.

“The whole process seemed really terse.”

In February 2020, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office told the police department that it would not file charges against Viesselman.

During his interview with a sergeant, Viesselman said he intended to land first with the suspect lying on top of him, then roll the suspect over and “stop the fight.” The prosecutor’s office’s review, which took into account the video surveillance, concluded that evidence showed Viesselman’s actions were “consistent with his intention.”

“Here, the video surveillance shows that (Viesselman) attempted to avoid the risk of injury to (Prince),” Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker wrote in a letter outlining the review, adding: “That said, while we do not believe that criminal charges are appropriate in this circumstance, we would be remiss in not stating that this case represents a series of unfortunate events that resulted in a death.”

The incident was also reviewed March 5 by the police department’s Notable Event Review Panel, a team of high-ranking officials, in a process meant to identify potential training or policy changes. None were made as a result of Prince’s death.

On the evening of Sept. 9

When he was younger, Brian Prince enjoyed fishing and Boy Scouts. Don Prince coached his baseball team for years. He also noticed his son had a talent for art.

But around age 13, he began experimenting with drugs. By 16, it was interfering with his school and activities, and Prince was in and out of trouble.

His parents believe that Prince, who was adopted when he was two months old, may have had a genetic predisposition to addiction.

They described him as a generous man, who had a dry sense of humor and would often tease his mother. He was an avid reader and drew intricate tattoo designs. The family keeps a photo album with pictures of Prince as well as his artwork, which includes hand-drawn Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day cards. Don Prince said his son had the intelligence and drive necessary to become a successful tattoo shop owner. But drugs got the best of him.

In November 1997, Brian, then 25, went into an Overland Park bank and demanded $500. He was not armed, but he was sentenced to 17 years in federal prison.

“The judge threw the book at him,” Don Prince said, adding he repaid the bank on behalf of his son.

They visited Prince during his time in federal prison in Leavenworth, where he was given permission to use his artistic talents to paint a 20-foot seascape mural. He was moved several times to penitentiaries across the country, and they drove or flew and visited when they could. They wrote letters and spoke to him on the phone in the time in between.

Prince developed his tattooing skills and got degrees in accounting and business.

When he was released in 2015, he got a job at a landscaping company and was promoted, managing his own crew. Things changed when his parole officer one day told him he needed to submit a urinary drug test; his boss said he couldn’t leave. He went to give the sample, but lost his job to do so. Life went downhill and he turned back to drugs.

In January 2017, he was released from a halfway house and seemed to be doing well.

But on the evening of Sept. 9, a week after he was tackled in the Walmart, a Shawnee police officer knocked on the door to Don and Carolyn Prince’s home.

‘It’s a shock’

The couple rushed to Research Medical Center where they discovered their son had been injured days earlier and that doctors were planning to take him off life support.

“It’s a shock,” Carolyn Prince said.

They asked for more time and got a second opinion. Though it was determined Prince’s brain damage was irreversible, their priest said he could not approve turning off life support. No other life-saving measures were taken.

His condition continued to deteriorate — he had pneumonia, food from his feeding tube leaked into his lungs. A priest performed last rites and he was moved into hospice.

Even as they buried their son, they still did not have answers.

“We had no idea what happened,” Carolyn Prince said.

“He was a perfectly healthy 45-year-old man that walked in the Walmart store on his own, and came out of there with a massive brain injury, on life support,” she continued. “Now how does that happen?”

The lawsuit

The Princes hired Kansas City attorney David Smith. With his help, they received more information including police reports and the surveillance videos from Walmart they can’t bring themselves to watch.

In December 2018, they filed a lawsuit alleging Viesselman used unreasonably excessive force when he tackled Brian Prince.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Smith said Prince was killed after disregarding a command from an officer.

“There may be no more dangerous crime in Kansas City than contempt of cop,” Smith said.

“There’s no accountability with this department for this officer and there’s no deterrence that will prevent the other officers from acting the same way.”

The lawsuit alleges one count of battery against Viesselman. The parents say the officer’s force demonstrated an indifference to Prince’s safety and well-being. He was not committing a crime when he was taken down and did not present a threat of death or serious injury to the officer, according to the lawsuit.

In its response to the lawsuit, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is representing Viesselman, said it acknowledged that Prince died from the injuries he sustained when Viesselman “tackled him.” But the attorney general’s office denied that Viesselman violently “slammed” him to the ground, and asked that a judge dismiss the lawsuit.

Viesselman tackled Prince because he ran from him, he was in a struggle with his partner and he feared if the foot chase continued, Prince, the officers and others “may get hurt by moving cars” outside the store, his lawyer said in court records.

Viesselman was trained that tackling is a “safe technique” to bring someone to the ground and that it is not likely to cause serious injury, according to his response to the lawsuit. He planned to arrest Prince for property damage and resisting arrest. He “did not intend for Prince to land as he did on the floor,” his response read.

The officer’s lawyer at the attorney general’s office directed The Star to the office’s spokesperson, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The civil case is scheduled to go to trial in July 2022.

‘There has to be some justice’

The Prince family said they want to see the police department take responsibility for its actions, including retraining officers who are “overly aggressive.”

“There has to be some justice,” Carolyn Prince said.

Prince’s parents also said they were disappointed with the way the department has treated them.

“The way they handled it from the very beginning was atrocious,” Don Prince said, noting they were not notified about their son’s injuries until days after. “You shouldn’t treat people that way.”

During depositions, the parents said they felt that they were on trial as attorneys questioned the strength of their relationship with their son, especially during his time in federal prison.

On the day of Prince’s funeral, a police sergeant called to tell the family he was not sure if Prince’s brain had been put back in his body after the autopsy, Don and Carolyn Prince said. To this day, they still don’t have an answer to that.

“That police officer took away my future with my only son,” Carolyn Prince said. “I miss my son.”

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