SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake police K-9 officer now faces a criminal charge accusing him of ordering his dog to attack a Black man who was kneeling in his yard with his hands in the air.
Nickolas John Pearce, 39, of Herriman, was charged Wednesday in 3rd District Court with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in this case, the man who was bit was being compliant with the officers’ commands, was not an imminent threat, and was not fleeing.
“There was no lawful reason in the totality of the circumstances we reviewed that justified the use of that force,” he said. “If you don’t have lawful reason to use that force, then it becomes unlawful.”
Furthermore, the Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board concluded in its independent investigation that Pearce, a 14-year veteran with the department, did use excessive force in making an arrest. The board also found it “disturbing” that a supervisor, who has since retired, never properly reported the incident.
On April 24, Pearce and his police K-9 Tuco, responded to a domestic violence call near 765 W. Justin Kay Court, along with two other officers. Jeffery Ryans, 36, was spotted on the east side of the residence in the backyard.
The officers confronted Ryans through a gate and he complied with their orders and put his hands in the air, according to charging documents. As one officer continued to talk to Ryans from the front yard, the two others, including Pearce, went through a gate into the backyard. Ryans’ hands were still raised, the charges state, as he explained that he lived in the house and was going to work.
As Pearce came around the corner of the home to approach Ryans, he “immediately told Ryans to get on the ground and then told him to get on the ground or (he’d) get bit. Ryans kept his hands raised and visible and turned his attention to Pearce,” according to the charges.
“Ryans did not express any intentions or engage in actions reflecting he was going to resist the officers.”
But just three seconds after confronting Ryans, investigators say Pearce kicked him in the leg.
“Ryans dropped to his knees and kept his hands raised. While Ryans was on his knees with his hands in the air, Pearce ordered K-9 Tuco to engage Ryans,” the charging documents state. While the dog was biting Ryans, Pearce “continually praised and encouraged K-9 Tuco.”
Ryans “questioned why he was being attacked when he was not resisting” and continued to tell officers he was being hurt, investigators wrote in the court documents.
In the body camera video, Ryans can be heard saying, “I’m on the ground, why are you biting me?” and crying out in pain several times. The officer can be heard saying “good boy” as the dog latches on.
“Ryans’ injuries were not described by medical as only puncture wounds from the bites, but rather large lacerations that medical concluded needed hospital care. Ryans was immediately transferred to the hospital for treatment,” the charges say.
Doctors say Ryans was treated for a wound that was approximately 4 inches wide and 3 inches long, and another that was 5 inches long and an inch wide. His injuries required surgery and “resulted in Ryans prolonged loss of the use of his left leg,” as well as permanent disfigurement of his leg, the charges state.
The Civilian Review Board’s report found that Ryans was likely trying to flee from the residence. But “at the time the K-9 bit him, based upon commands given by detective Pearce, it appears that Mr. Ryans was complying with officer commands and was kneeling on a single knee with both of his hands in the air. Detective Pearce commanded his dog to ‘hit,’ the command to bite, four times based upon his belief that Mr. Ryans was rising from the ground,” according to the board’s report.
Pearce told the Civilian Review Board that it was his belief that Ryans was not following commands, and “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 says. He further explained that K-9s respond to positive reinforcement “as they do not naturally want to bite humans.” Because of that, the officer will let the the police dog know after every deployment that what the dog did was correct.
“The comment was not complimentary of the wound inflicted by Tuco but to reassure Tuco that he had done as instructed,” he told the board.
But the Civilian Review Board determined that in this case, “there does not seem to be an attempt by (officer) Pearce to de-escalate the matter. In almost his first words he makes the command for Mr. Ryans to come to him and if he does not, the threat of him getting ‘bit’ is issued,” the report states.
The Civilian Review Board report also concluded that while rightfully being cautious, Pearce “did not do much to figure out what was occurring.”
And even if Ryans was attempting to stand up, “it seems that many lesser use-of-force options were available to the two officers” and there was no indication that he was armed, according to the report.
According to section 308 of the Salt Lake Police Policy Manual, an officer may use a canine to apprehend a suspect “if the canine handler reasonably believes that the individual has either committed, is committing or threatening to commit any serious offense” and if there is an imminent threat of harm to the public, the suspect is physically resisting, or the suspect is concealed in an area that would pose a threat to officers.
The review board also determined that a sergeant had reported the incident to a lieutenant afterward, but the lieutenant “failed to notify any of his superiors or make a referral to internal affairs, as is mandated by policy. The lieutenant has retired, unrelated to this matter, and therefore cannot be disciplined for his failure to supervise,” the report states. “The failure of the lieutenant to report this incident up the chain is disturbing and unacceptable.”
It wasn't until news coverage of the incident surfaced on Aug. 11 that Salt Lake police launched an investigation into the incident and placed Pearce on administrative leave. After body camera video was released, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall ordered the police department to put a hold on its use of K-9s to apprehend suspects until the department’s policies were reviewed.
“I appreciate the district attorney’s quick work on this investigation and remain committed to the mandate before us to make progressive change in the way we approach policing,” Mendenhall said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “We 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.”
The Salt Lake City Police Department issued a statement shortly after the charges were filed, saying it is still reviewing the incident.
“The department takes the district attorney’s decision and the Civilian Review Board’s findings very seriously. Both will be evaluated and taken into account as the department is finalizing its internal affairs investigation,” the statement said. “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.”
As of Wednesday, Salt Lake police are still not using K-9s to apprehend suspects and Pearce remains on administrative leave. Furthermore, Mendenhall announced that “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.”