Salt Lake City suspends use of police dogs after a Black man was bit while complying

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department) Body camera footage shows a police K9 biting the leg of Jeffery Ryans in April. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020 that the K9 officer involved in the incident has been suspended pending an investigation.

A Salt Lake City officer who ordered a police dog to attack a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air has been suspended pending an investigation into whether the use of force was necessary, the mayor announced Wednesday.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted that the use of police dogs “to engage with suspects” will also be suspended until the city can review its policies and practices.

The announcement comes a day after The Salt Lake Tribune published bodycam footage of Officer Nickolas Pearce ordering his dog to bite 36-year-old Jeffery Ryans early on April 24.

“I am disturbed by what I saw in that video,” Mendenhall said, “frustrated by how the situation was handled, and am committed to working to ensure neither happen again.”

Mendenhall wrote that she was “deeply concerned” that it took The Tribune publishing the video for it to be brought to her attention and to be brought to senior leaders at the police department.

The police department said in a Wednesday statement that the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office is also reviewing the case. District Attorney Sim Gill said they’ll be looking at whether to criminally charge the officer.

“I read the story and saw the video and I had not heard anything about it,” Gill said. “The first thing I did was ask our chief deputy to call the police and ask how come we haven’t looked at this.”

Department officials said Wednesday that “senior leadership” became aware of the situation from The Tribune story — though a reporter sought comment on the case last week and Ryans’ lawyers filed a notice that they were intending to sue on July 20.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "I was like a chew toy," said Jeffery Ryans about the night his left leg was damaged by a Salt Lake City police dog while discussing his case in his attorney's office, Aug. 5, 2020.

The internal affairs investigation, they say, will also look into why the use of force was not referred to investigators back in April.

Ryans’ attorneys wrote in the notice of claim that Pearce’s use of force was unnecessary — and has caused an injury that could have been avoided if the officer “performed the appropriate actions” while arresting Ryans.

The attorneys, Gabriel White and Dan Garner, said Wednesday that it was a positive step that the police department is investigating, and added that they heard from the internal affairs unit for the first time that day. But they questioned how it was possible that the department was not aware of what happened.

“The reality is the police department has had all of these facts for months and months and months,” White said. “Their own officers were there. A sergeant knew. They had to transport [Ryans] to the hospital.”

The attorneys said they initially filed their notice of claim on June 29, but had to resubmit a few weeks later because there was an issue with a signature.

Police officials have noted that Ryans didn’t file a complaint with the department and asked for an internal affairs investigation. Garner said he and White went through the proper processes in filing a notice of claim, but he scoffed at the idea that he should have asked for a review.

“Why would my client want to have further interactions with the police?” he asked.

Ryans told The Tribune that he was trying to comply with officers when they came to his home after someone heard him arguing with his wife and called 911.

Body camera footage from the officers show Ryans was in his backyard smoking a cigarette — he says he was about to leave for his job as a train engineer — when the officers shined their lights on him and started yelling.

(Warning: the following video contains violence and swearing.)

“Get on the ground!” Pearce yelled, as his dog barked. “Get on the ground or you’re going to get bit!”

Ryans dropped what was in his hands and put them in the air.

“I wasn’t running,” he recalled. “I wasn’t fighting. I was just cooperating.”

Body camera footage shows that though Ryans was kneeling with his hands in the air, the K9 officer still ordered his dog to attack.

The dog, Tuco, latched on to Ryans’ left leg, the footage shows. Even as another officer sat on top of Ryans and puts the man in handcuffs, Pearce continued to instruct his dog to “hit” — and Tuco responded by biting and tearing at Ryans’ leg.

“Why are you doing this?” Ryans yelled, according to the video. “Why are you biting me?”

“Good boy,” the officer said to his dog, as Ryans screamed in pain.

His lawyers say Ryans has suffered nerve and tendon damage, infections and has difficulty walking.

White alleges that officers reacted the way they did because his client is Black.

It’s not clear from the body camera footage who called police to Ryans’ home, but he said it wasn’t his wife.

Police sought to arrest Ryans because his wife had filed a protective order in December and he wasn’t supposed to be in their home. Court records show Ryans is facing domestic violence charges for an incident that occurred around that time, but charging documents offer no other details about what happened.

Ryans said his wife had told him the protective order was lifted, and he had been back in their home for weeks before the police were called in April. He said he didn’t know that her request to have the protective order lifted was still pending — so he was technically in violation of it at the time of his arrest.

Ryans now faces a charge of violating that protective order, but no court dates have been set.

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