A Salt Lake City officer who ordered a police dog to bite a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air is now facing a criminal charge for the attack.
Prosecutors charged Officer Nickolas Pearce on Wednesday with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony. If convicted, Pearce could face a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Pearce has been suspended from the police force since August, after The Salt Lake Tribune published body camera footage of Pearce ordering his dog to bite 36-year-old Jeffery Ryans in the early morning of April 24.
The department announced Aug. 12 that Pearce would be suspended and the use of police dogs to apprehend suspects would also be put on hold as the city reviewed its policies and practices.
Pearce began working for Salt Lake City police in 2015, according to state employee pay records. Those records show the officer being paid in 2015 and again in 2020, with no payments in between. He has no record of sustained disciplinary findings while at the department, according to a response to a public records request.
Bodycam footage shows officers confront Ryans as he was in his backyard smoking a cigarette. He says he was about to leave for his job as a train engineer as officers begin yelling at him.
Ryans dropped what was in his hands and put them in the air. He stayed put, and told police where they could find the gate to access his backyard. As Pearce enters Ryans’ yard, the officer continues 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, the K9 officer still ordered his dog to attack.
The dog, Tuco, latched on to Ryans’ left leg, the footage shows. 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, according to the video. “Why are you biting me?”
“Good boy,” the officer said to his dog, as Ryans screamed in pain.
Prosecutors noted in charging documents that Ryans complied with what the officers were telling him to do, and “did not express any intentions or engage in actions reflecting he was going to resist the officers.”
Pearce allegedly kicked Ryans in the leg three seconds after entering the backyard, charging documents say, and that’s when Ryans dropped to his knee and kept his hands raised.
“When K9 Tuco engaged and was biting Ryans, Pearce continually praised and encouraged K9 Tuco,” charging documents state. “K9 Tuco’s biting of Ryans continued while being praised and encouraged by Pearce. While he was being attacked by K9 Tuco, Ryans expressed extreme emotions reflective of pain from being bitten by K9 Tuco and plead with the officers to stop the biting. He questioned why he was being attacked when he was not resisting.”
Police had come to Ryans’ home after his daughter called 911 and reported her father was “doing very bad things to my family.”
She reported that he was yelling and screaming, and had hit her mother. By the time the police arrived, Ryans was no longer in the house and was standing in the backyard.
The officers who responded sought to arrest Ryans because his wife had filed a protective order in December and he wasn’t supposed to be in their home. Court records show Ryans is facing domestic violence charges for an incident that occurred around that time, where he is accused of arguing with his wife and throwing a remote control at her before throwing her on a couch and hitting her with a laundry basket.
Ryans told The Tribune that when the police came to arrest him that April morning, he was confused. One officer was yelling for him to come to him, while another screamed to get on the ground. He was worried if he did the wrong thing, he would get shot.
“I wasn’t running,” he recalled. “I wasn’t fighting. I was just cooperating. We’ve been through this. We’ve seen this. Always cooperate with the police, no matter what.”
He filed notice with the city in late July that he’s planning to sue over the dog attack, which he says has caused lasting injuries.
Ryans’ attorneys wrote in the notice of claim that Pearce’s use of force was unnecessary — and has caused an injury that could have been avoided if the officer “performed the appropriate actions” while arresting Ryans.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office began reviewing Pearce’s actions in late April after The Tribune published the bodycam footage.
“I read the story and saw the video and I had not heard anything about it,” Gill said then. “The first thing I did was ask our chief deputy to call the police and ask how come we haven’t looked at this.”
It’s rare for Gill’s office to file criminal charges against police officers. The last time it happened was in 2018, when parole agent Andrew Reed O’Gwin shot and injured a man under his supervision during a bizarre interaction in traffic. Parolee Joe Gomez told prosecutors he jumped out of his car because he was getting burned by a cigarette. O’Gwin said Gomez punched his car window and in reaction fired five shots, hitting Gomez three times. Gill’s officer filed felony charges against the parole officer, but later asked for them to be dismissed when a witness gave a conflicting account.
The Salt Lake Tribune will update this article.