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Mayor censures suspended Salt Lake police K-9 program to correct ‘pattern of abuse’

18 K-9 bites so far being referred for more investigation

SHARE Mayor censures suspended Salt Lake police K-9 program to correct ‘pattern of abuse’
Jeffrey Ryans is seen in police body camera footage recorded Friday, April 24, 2020. Ryans was bit by a police K-9 after he was already kneeling with his hands in the air. The Salt Lake City Police Department is now investigating and an officer has been placed on leave.

Jeffrey Ryans is seen in police body camera footage recorded Friday, April 24, 2020. Ryans was bit by a police K-9 after he was already kneeling with his hands in the air. Salt Lake City police K-9 officer Nickolas Pearce was charged Wednesday with aggravated assault.

Salt Lake City Police Department

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a censure of the city police department’s K-9 apprehension program Friday, calling its recent history a “pattern of abuse of power.”

Her statement in a news conference Friday was the latest blow to the program after police body camera footage was released showing an officer ordering a police dog to bite the leg of a kneeling Black man, Jeffrey Ryans, who had his hands in the air.

In response to that incident, the department’s K-9 apprehension program was suspended indefinitely on Aug. 12, and the officer involved, Nickolas John Pearce, was placed on administrative leave. Pearce has since been charged with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony.

In addition to the program’s suspension, the department has decided further action is necessary and announced Friday that it will audit all K-9 bite incidents that have occurred in the past four years.

After review and if deemed necessary, cases will be referred to the department’s Internal Affairs Unit, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office and the Civilian Review Board for further investigation.

All officers involved in the incidents have been placed on administrative leave, consistent with the department’s standard practices, Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said, and body camera footage of the bites will be released within 10 business days from Friday.

“Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “That is why I’m here before you today to be honest and transparent about not only what we have found but how we intend to move forward. Trust is something that is earned, it is not given. As a department, we recognize that when trust is lost, it requires even more hard work to get it back.”

As of Friday, the department had reviewed 27 bites dating back to 2018. Eighteen of those will be referred for further investigation, Brown said.

Another criticism of the incident involving Ryans was the lack of communication within the police department at the time of the event, which occurred on April 24. It wasn’t until mid-August — when a report of the incident surfaced in the media — that police began their investigation and put Pearce on leave.

Mendenhall tweeted on Aug. 12 that she was “frustrated by how the situation was handled” and “committed to working to ensure neither happen again.”

Mendenhall, Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill were all complimentary of Brown’s latest efforts.

“Not only has Chief Brown worked to put reforms in place that better protect our public and our officers, he’s the only chief in the state that I’m aware of who’s also willing to look back, when no one is asking him to do so, and say, ‘Let’s see what we may need to be accountable for that no one’s asked us to yet.’ That’s leadership,” Mendenhall said.

While the city council has yet to view all of the body camera footage, Wharton said he believes the department is taking a step forward in terms of transparency.

“The city council expresses support for the administration’s emphasis on accountability, equity and transparency in policing in Salt Lake City. As a city, we’ve seen our share of concerns about policing,” he said. “The power to change the face of policing is within the heart and mind of every single police officer.”

He also commended Mendenhall for her watchfulness over how taxpayer policing resources are being used.

In a statement Friday, Gill called the move a “vital step toward restoring public faith in law enforcement” and said his office will “file charges on any case that rise to the level of criminal activity.”

His office has requested to review all 27 incidents from the police department after learning of the K-9 incident involving Ryans.

Mendenhall added that she wasn’t yet willing to permanently terminate the K-9 program, citing the potential for “unintended consequences that are contrary to our work of improving the outcomes of policing for the public and our officers.” She said research is currently being done to determine the best path forward, including watching communities that have made similar decisions and studying other “appropriately administered” K-9 programs.

The possibility for a reformed unit will be decided at a later date, she said.

“If we are to produce a police department that is always transparent, accountable and fair, we must be willing — and we are willing — to see where we have done harm, to fix it, and to ensure that it never happens again,” she said. “The culture of abuse that we seem to see in these K-9 incidents ends now.”