Utah man sues Salt Lake City police for ordering dog to attack after he was already cooperating

The officer who ordered the bite currently faces two felony assault charges for K-9 attacks.

(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 attorneys office on Aug. 5, 2020. Ryans is now suing Salt Lake City police after he says officers used excessive force when they commanded a police dog to attack him repeatedly while he was on his knees with his hands in the air.

A Utah man is suing Salt Lake City’s police department, alleging an officer used unnecessary force in ordering a police dog to bite him while he was kneeling with his hands in the air.

Jeffery Ryans was bit in April 2020, after officers were called to investigate a call of domestic abuse. They were arresting Ryans because he had a restraining order against him and was allegedly violating that by being in the home where his wife lived.

Ryans said in an interview later that year that when the officers came to the home, his reaction was almost instinctive. Growing up as a Black man in Alabama, he said, you are taught to cooperate. You put your hands up when you’re told. You get on the ground if they say so.

That’s what he was trying to do that day, he said.

Body camera footage shows officers as he was in the 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, the video shows. He stayed put, and told police where they could find the gate to access his backyard. As Officers Nickolas Pearce and Kevin Jewkes entered Ryans’ yard, they 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, Pearce 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,” Pearce said to his dog, as Ryans screamed in pain.

(Screenshot via Salt Lake City Police Department) Body camera footage shows a police K9 biting the leg of Jeffrey 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.

Ryans said he has had to have multiple surgeries on his leg since the attack, which resulted in permanent injury and a limp he expects to have for the rest of his life.

He alleges in his lawsuit, filed in federal court last week, that Pearce used unreasonable and unnecessary force against him and that Jewkes violated department policy by not intervening. He also alleges that Salt Lake City’s police department did not properly train their K-9 apprehension team to use “less destructive and dangerous alternatives” than having a dog attack someone.

The suit names Salt Lake City’s police department and officers Pearce and Jewkes as defendants.

Salt Lake City police officials declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, saying they had not yet received or reviewed the filing.

Ryans’ attorney, Gabriel White, said they tried to negotiate with the city before filing a lawsuit but were unsuccessful.

“We’ve made every effort to work the case out and come to a resolution with the city,” White said.

White said it has taken them nearly two years to file the lawsuit because of the negotiations, as well as challenges they have faced trying to get public records from Salt Lake City and its police department.

SLCPD officials said Friday that they withheld the records to “protect the due process rights of those involved in the DA’s [district attorney’s] matter.”

“The plaintiff and/or attorney had the ability to appeal those decisions if they disagreed with them,” the department said, “and did not avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Prosecutors began reviewing Ryans’ case in August 2020, after The Salt Lake Tribune published body camera footage showing the attack. Pearce was subsequently suspended and charged with a felony, and Salt Lake City’s use of police dogs to apprehend suspects was also placed on hold. The apprehension program is still suspended, according to police officials, and Pearce remains on administrative leave.

Department officials launched a review of times when police dogs had been used during an arrest, and found what Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall described as a “pattern of abuse of power.”

FILE - Salt Lake City Chief of Police Mike Brown listens as Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall speaks during a news conference on Sept. 21, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City's police dog apprehension program will remain suspended indefinitely, the police chief announced Friday, Sepr. 25, 2020, after an officer ordered a dog to attack a Black man who had put his hands in the air. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The city forwarded 18 cases to be screened by prosecutors for possible criminal charges. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill widened his review to all K-9 bite cases for every department in his jurisdiction.

Gill said Thursday that he did so because his office hadn’t been given those cases to review previously — something he felt they should have been involved in. He said they have cleared many cases where they were not issues and are now taking a closer look at a handful that could possibly raise policy concerns. He said he is not sure whether his office will file any more criminal charges.

Pearce currently faces two felony assault charges: one for ordering his dog to bite Ryans and another in a different case where Pearce allegedly lifted up his K-9 so the dog could bite a woman who was in a suspected stolen vehicle.

A preliminary hearing is expected to be held next month on those charges.

Pearce’s criminal case has been delayed because of issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as prosecutors experiencing difficulty securing Ryans and the woman to testify in an earlier hearing. Court papers say the woman could not be located after she had left her drug treatment program. And there were challenges getting Ryans to the courthouse because he is currently in jail on domestic violence-related charges that allege he violated a protective order and tried to buy a gun though he was restricted from doing so; those charges are not connected to the night he was bit by the dog.

A joint Tribune/FOX 13 investigation last year found that Ryans was not the only suspect in the Salt Lake Valley who was bit by a police dog while appearing to surrender.

The news organizations analyzed 39 body camera videos from the three largest police departments in the county — Salt Lake City, Unified and West Valley City. In 20% of those videos, suspects had their hands up or were facedown when they were bit. A majority of those involved Salt Lake City police.

In seven cases, a police dog continued to bite even after a suspect was handcuffed and in police control. Most of those happened in West Valley City.