A Salt Lake City police officer faces a second felony charge for ordering his dog to bite someone, who prosecutors say wasn’t a threat.
In this latest aggravated assault charge, Officer Nickolas Pearce allegedly lifted up his K-9, Tuco, so the dog could bite a woman who was in a suspected stolen vehicle.
Prosecutors allege in charging records that police pulled the woman over in 2019. She had followed police commands to turn off the vehicle, toss out the keys and put her hands out the window. She was ordered to get out, but didn’t — prosecutors noted she moved very little, kept her arms out the window and did not make any threats or aggressive movements toward the officers, who had their guns drawn. Then, Pearce and his dog approached.
“Despite the fact that [she] was not making any threats or any aggressive moves towards the officers, Pearce directed K-9 Tuco over to the vehicle and lifted him up so that K-9 Tuco could reach the extended arms of [the woman] and told K-9 Tuco to ‘hit,’” charging documents read. “K-9 Tuco bit [her] arm and pulled the arm down due to the weight of K-9 Tuco.”
The woman suffered “significant lacerations” to her forearm, prosecutors say, and the bite caused long-term impairment and permanent disfigurement.
This is the second time prosecutors have charged Pearce for allegedly misusing his police dog.
He faces another aggravated assault charge for ordering Tuco to attack a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air during a 2020 encounter.
The charges are third-degree felonies, which are each punishable by up to five years in prison if he is convicted. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 15.
Defense attorney Tara Issacson said in a statement Tuesday that her client has been a police officer for 14 years and a K-9 handler since 2010. She said that in both cases, Pearce “deployed his dog in a scenario consistent with his training and department policy.”
“Each case was reviewed by supervisors and no concerns were ever expressed,” she said. “Each case was also previously reviewed by the district attorney’s office when charges were screened against the suspects in each case. No concerns were raised at that time either.”
Isaacson said that in the most recent charge, there was an “extended period of time” when the woman would not get out of the car. Officers were concerned for their safety, she said, which is why Pearce and Tuco were brought in.
“We believe that the court will ultimately find that the use of a K-9 in both of these instances was lawful and consistent with department policy,” she said.
In August, The Salt Lake Tribune published body camera footage that showed Pearce telling Tuco to bite 36-year-old Jeffery Ryans on April 24, 2020. That led to a sweeping investigation by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and the original criminal charges against Pearce. The officer was subsequently suspended, and Salt Lake City suspended its use of police dogs to apprehend suspects.
Police officials launched a review of times when dogs had been used to bite someone during an arrest, and Mayor Erin Mendenhall said last September that what they found was a “pattern of abuse of power.”
The department flagged 18 of those cases — 66% — to forward to the district attorney’s office to be screened for criminal charges. They also released body camera footage of those incidents to the public.
This latest charge was not one of those.
It surfaced as part of Gill’s review.
The district attorney’s office sought to review all instances where police dogs bit suspects, not just the ones Salt Lake City thought were questionable.
A department spokesperson didn’t know why the video of the woman getting bitten wasn’t previously released on the department’s YouTube channel.
“It probably was one we hadn’t flagged as questionable if it’s not on there,” said SLCPD Detective Greg Wilking. “Why wouldn’t it have been in there? I can’t speak to that because I haven’t seen it.”
Wilking said the department’s K-9 handlers remain on administrative leave, and the program will continue to be suspended at least until the district attorney office’s review is complete.