Salt Lake County prosecutors on Wednesday took the unusual step of filing a criminal charge against a Salt Lake City officer who ordered his police dog to attack a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air.
Police officers don’t often face criminal charges in Utah, but Salt Lake County District Sim Gill said his office decided to file the case after reviewing whether Officer Nickolas Pearce used “unlawful force” on April 24 when he ordered his dog to bite 36-year-old Jeffery Ryans.
Ryans "wasn’t resisting arrest,” Gill said. “He certainly wasn’t posing an imminent threat of violence or harm to anyone and he certainly wasn’t concealed. He was fenced in an area and was being compliant.”
Pearce was charged with second-degree felony aggravated assault, and faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors began reviewing the case in late August after The Salt Lake Tribune published body camera footage that showed the attack. The officer was subsequently suspended, and the use of police dogs to apprehend suspects was also placed on hold as the city reviewed its policies and practices.
Salt Lake City police said in a Wednesday statement that it was aware of the criminal charge, and was also aware that the city’s Civilian Review Board concluded last week that Pearce violated policy.
“The department takes the district attorney’s decision and the Civilian Review Board’s findings very seriously,” a statement reads. “Both will be evaluated and taken into account as the department is finalizing its internal affairs investigation. If internal affairs finds that Officer Pearce committed a policy violation, the chief’s office will follow the disciplinary process required under state and federal law. This can take some time, but we will carry this out as expediently as possible to bring a prompt conclusion to this matter.”
Pearce has been a police officer for 14 years. He has no record of sustained disciplinary findings while at the department, according to a response to a public records request.
Steven Winters, the president of the Salt Lake City Police Association, said Wednesday that the association supports Pearce, noting he is a highly-trained dog handler. He said he believes the decision to charge Pearce was political.
“We believe his actions that evening were justified and in the bounds of the law,” he said. “Officer Pearce is an excellent officer and is without question a good dog handler. We’re hopeful that the criminal justice system will [run] its course and take care of this manner.”
Bodycam footage shows officers confront Ryans as he was in his backyard smoking a cigarette. He says he was about to leave for his job as a train engineer as officers started yelling at him.
Ryans dropped what was in his hands and put them in the air. He stayed put, and told police where they could find the gate to access his backyard. As Pearce entered Ryans' yard, the officer continued yelling at the man.
“Get on the ground!” Pearce yelled as his dog barked. “Get on the ground or you’re going to get bit!”
Body camera footage shows that though Ryans was kneeling with his hands in the air, the K-9 officer still ordered his dog to attack.
The dog, Tuco, latched on to Ryans' left leg. Even as another officer sat on top of Ryans and put 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. “Why are you biting me?”
“Good boy,” the officer said to his dog, as Ryans screamed in pain.
Prosecutors noted in charging documents that Ryans complied with what the officers were telling him to do, and “did not express any intentions or engage in actions reflecting he was going to resist the officers.”
Pearce allegedly kicked Ryans in the leg three seconds after entering the backyard, charging documents say, and that’s when Ryans dropped to his knees and kept his hands raised.
“When K-9 Tuco engaged and was biting Ryans, Pearce continually praised and encouraged K-9 Tuco,” charging documents state. “While he was being attacked by K-9 Tuco, Ryans expressed extreme emotions reflective of pain from being bitten by K-9 Tuco and plead with the officers to stop the biting. He questioned why he was being attacked when he was not resisting.”
Pearce told the Civilian Review Board that he ordered Tuco to bite Ryans because he noticed the man had one hand grasping a fence.
“Pearce felt that Mr. Ryans was rising from the ground to fight and opted to use his K-9 to stop these actions,” the board’s report reads.
Pearce added that his encouraging words to his police dog were a “verbal reinforcement” given to the animals “as they do not naturally want to bite humans.”
The officer said that he felt his action were in compliance with department policy, but the board disagreed. The report says that, after watching the body camera videos, the board found there was “no discernible attempt” by Ryans to stand up or to climb the fence. They noted that officers had many less violent options to address the situation.
Ryans' attorneys did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, though previously have said they believe the officer’s actions were racially motivated.
Police had come to Ryans' home after his daughter called 911 and reported her father was “doing very bad things to my family.”
She reported that he was yelling and screaming, and had hit her mother. By the time the police arrived, Ryans was no longer in the house and was standing in the backyard.
The officers who responded 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, when he is accused of arguing with his wife and throwing a remote control at her before throwing her on a couch and hitting her with a laundry basket.
Ryans told The Tribune that when the police came to arrest him that April morning, he was confused. One officer was yelling for him to come to him, while another screamed to get on the ground. He was worried if he did the wrong thing, he would get shot.
“I wasn’t running,” he recalled. “I wasn’t fighting. I was just cooperating. We’ve been through this. We’ve seen this. Always cooperate with the police, no matter what.”
He filed notice with the city in late July that he’s planning to sue over the dog attack, which he says has caused lasting injuries.
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.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a Wednesday statement that she appreciated the district attorney’s quick work, and said city officials “will not back down from the work that must be done in evolving our policies, culture, and budget to ensure that SLCPD is the gold standard in law enforcement.”
“As a result of this case, SLCPD’s use of the K-9 bite program continues to be suspended pending the outcome of policy and procedure reviews by both the department and the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing," she said. "In addition, reforms requiring more thorough reporting and review of uses of force have gone into effect, which I believe would have ensured that this incident was handled when it should have been last April.”
Winters, with the police association, called the mayor’s suspension of the use of K-9 dogs against suspects a “knee-jerk reaction” that is disappointing. He said the seven dogs in the department are still working, but can’t be used to help officers arrest suspects.
“Suspending this program is very dangerous not just for the officer, but the public,” he said. “It’s an intermediary tool. ... It’s just one element that is now taken away from our arsenal of tools.”
The Civilian Review Board noted in its findings that Pearce’s first-level supervisor, a sergeant, had reviewed the police report and body camera footage after the April arrest, and had forwarded it to his lieutenant. But the lieutenant, who has since retired, didn’t notify his supervisors or make a referral to the internal affairs department, as mandated by policy.
“The failure of the lieutenant to report this incident up the chain is disturbing and unacceptable,” the report says. “Watch commanders are the eyes and ears for senior department leadership and without them reporting such incidents, there is no way for the department to act quickly, or even at all.”
Ryan Carver, the spokesperson for Utah’s Fraternal Order of Police, questioned Wednesday whether it was appropriate for Gill’s office to review this case itself. He said they would prefer that an outside agency did an independent investigation, then forward that to the district attorney’s office for a review.
“It honestly smacks of his usual political attempt to charge an officer of something without basis," Carver said. “The rush to judgment is obviously something we have an issue with.”
The last time Gill’s office charged a police officer was in 2018, when parole agent Andrew Reed O’Gwin shot and injured a man under his supervision during a bizarre interaction in traffic. Parolee Joe Gomez told prosecutors he jumped out of his car because he was getting burned by a cigarette. O’Gwin said Gomez punched his car window and in reaction fired five shots, hitting Gomez three times. Gill’s officer filed felony charges against the parole officer, but later asked for them to be dismissed when a witness gave a conflicting account.