1 of 2 felony charges dismissed against Salt Lake City officer accused in K-9 attacks

The first assault charge filed against the K-9 officer is still being prosecuted.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City K-9 police officer Nickolas Pearce appears before Third District Court Judge William K. Kendall, Tuesday, July 26, 2022, during his preliminary hearing on assault charges related to K-9 attacks.

A Salt Lake County judge in a preliminary hearing Tuesday dismissed a felony assault charge against a Salt Lake City K-9 officer accused of unnecessarily siccing his police dog on arrestees.

Officer Nickolas Pearce initially faced two aggravated assault charges in connection with two separate K-9 attacks. Early in the six-hour hearing Tuesday, 3rd District Court Judge William K. Kendall dismissed one of the counts without prejudice after a witness who was expected to testify did not show up. Prosecutors could potentially refile the charge at a later date.

The K-9 officer still faces an assault charge in connection with the April 2020 arrest of Jeffrey Ryans.

The Salt Lake City Police Department stopped using K-9s in arrests and vowed to investigate after The Salt Lake Tribune published body camera footage from Ryans’ arrest, which showed Pearce ordering his dog to attack Ryans, who is Black, while the man was on his knees with his hands in the air.

“I was doing exactly what they told me,” Ryan testified Tuesday. “So I was kind of confused why I was being attacked.”

Ryans also testified Tuesday that he lost his wife, his job and feeling in his leg after the attack that night.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office originally charged Pearce in connection with Ryans’ arrest in September 2020, but filed a second count of aggravated assault related to a 2019 traffic stop after prosecutors came across the case during their review. That count was dismissed Tuesday.

In connection with the Ryans’ case, prosecutors on Tuesday called Ryans; SLCPD responding officers Cody Orgill and Kevin Jewkes; and retired Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training K-9 trainer Wendell Nope to the stand as witnesses Tuesday.

Pearce was present in the courtroom but did not speak on the record except to affirm that he waived his right to testify. Before the hearing, a group of officers lined a sidewalk near the entrance of the courthouse and clapped, some patting Pearce on the back as he walked inside with his attorneys.

Prosecutors argue conduct was illegal, violated police policy

Attorneys spent the majority of the hearing questioning each of the witnesses about what happened on April 24, 2020, after one of Ryans’ children called 911 to report that Ryans and his wife had been fighting.

Pointing to body camera footage, the 911 dispatch call record and excerpts from official reports, prosecutor Andrew Deesing argued that Pearce’s conduct was not only illegal but violated SLCPD’s own use of force policies, because Ryans was complying when Pearce commanded his dog to “hit,” or bite, Ryans.

Body camera footage shows that just a few seconds passed between the moment officers meet Ryans in his backyard, the moment they command him to get on the ground and the moment Pearce tells his K-9 to attack.

When the dog bites, Ryans is kneeling on one knee with his hands raised in front of him, about as high as his shoulders, the footage shows.

Deesing asked the two other responding officers — Orgill and Jewkes — to read part of SLCPD’s use of force policy, which states: “Force should be used only with the greatest restraint and only after discussion, negotiation and persuasion have been found to be inappropriate or ineffective.”

“While the use of force is occasionally unavoidable,” the policy continues, “every police officer will refrain from applying the unnecessary infliction of pain or suffering and will never engage in cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment of any person.”

Deesing contended that Ryans received conflicting commands from police — he was asked to both get on the ground, and get on his knees — and complied by getting on one knee and keeping his hands up.

When asked if Ryans complied, Orgill said Ryans didn’t do so “immediately.”

The prosecutor and Orgill tussled over their definition of “immediately.” What if Deesing ordered Orgill to “immediately” get on the ground in the court room, the prosecutor asked — would you do it faster than Ryans?

“If there was a dog there, a lot quicker,” Orgill said, eliciting a few laughs from the gallery behind Pearce.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City officer Cody Orgill testifies, July, 26, 2022, before 3rd District Court Judge William K. Kendall during fellow Salt Lake Police K-9 officer Nickolas Pearce's preliminary hearing.

Defense argued scene was dynamic, dangerous

Defense attorneys Tara Isaacson and Nathan Evershed tried to show that officers arrived at a dynamic and potentially dangerous scene, where Pearce ordered the police dog to attack only after Ryans gave them more and more reasons for concern.

Isaacson pointed out that it was late at night and hard to see. Officers had received a call reporting that Ryans had physically abused his wife, and domestic violence calls are often dangerous for responding officers.

When the officers arrived, Ryans’ wife and the children seemed afraid. And, when Ryans didn’t respond to their commands inside the house, they later found him in the backyard — perhaps trying to escape — and he was slow to listen to their commands.

Defense attorneys instructed witnesses to read from another section of SLCPD’s manual: “The objective reasonableness of a particular use of force is not analyzed in hindsight, but will take into account the fact that officers must make rapid decisions regarding the amount of force to use in tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving situations.”

K-9 expert Wendell Nope said Pearce appeared to be “rushed” that night, and testified that Pearce’s initial command — “Get on the ground or you’re going to get bit” — was too aggressive and didn’t give Ryans enough time to understand and respond before ordering the dog to bite.

Nope said he didn’t believe Pearce should have ordered the dog to bite and that the bite lasted tens of seconds longer than it should have.

In her cross examination, Isaacson pointed out that there is no national standard for police K-9 conduct. She asked Nope if it’s true that you could get three K-9 trainers in a room, and the only thing two may agree on is that the third trainer is wrong. Nope agreed that that is a common axiom.

Defense attorneys planned to call another K-9 expert to testify, but opted against as it neared 4 p.m.

Judge Kendall ended the hearing by asking attorneys to submit written arguments. The state’s brief is due Oct. 21, and the defense must file a response by Nov. 11.

The state’s final reply is due Dec. 9. The judge will then determine if there is enough evidence to go to trial.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City K9 police officer Nickolas Pearce's criminal defense attorneys Nathan Evershed, left and Tara Isaacson, right, talk with Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Andrew Deesing in Third District Court Judge William K. Kendall's courtroom during Pearce's preliminary hearing, Tuesday, July 26, 2022.