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Utah officer charged with aggravated assault after violent K-9 attack on Black man

Officer accused of commanding K-9 to bite man already on his knees
Utah officer charged with aggravated assault after violent K-9 attack on Black man
Posted at 8:41 AM, Sep 17, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- A Salt Lake City K-9 officer has been charged with aggravated assault in connection with an April 24 incident.

Officer Nickolas John Pearce, 39, responded to a report of domestic violence that day. Pearce is accused of commanding his K-9, Tuco, to bite Jeffery Ryans, even though Ryans was on his knees and had his hands in the air.

"When K-9 Tuco engaged and was biting Ryans, [Pearce] continually praised and encouraged K-9 Tuco," a probable cause statement said. "While he was being attacked by K-9 Tuco, Ryans expressed extreme emotions reflective of pain from being bitten by K-9 Tuco and plead with the officers to stop the biting. He questioned why he was being attacked when he was not resisting."

Ryans suffered large lacerations and required hospitalization for his injuries. After receiving treatment for his injuries, Ryans was booked into the Salt Lake County Metro Jail on a charge of violating a protective order.

In an interview with KSTU on Wednesday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said they looked to see if the force used was reasonable.

"And in this case, the conclusion of our attorneys when we reviewed the body cam video, we looked at the reports that were generated, and we could find no lawful reason to use that police dog in the fashion that it did and resulting in the injury caused on Mr. Ryans," Gill said.

(Warning: the following body camera video contains graphic language and violence)

"I don't know why they had to use that type of force towards me," Ryans said in an interview with KSTU. "I was cooperating. I wasn't a threat to them."

Ryans, a Black man, said police often treat Black people differently, and he wants people to see it happens in Utah too.

"It's very difficult not to see how race could play a factor here," said one of Ryans' attorneys, Gabriel K. White, in an interview last month.

In August, Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Pearce was placed on leave and SLCPD was suspending its use of K-9s after body camera footage of the incident surfaced.

Former Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank told KSTU that Pearce's use of the K-9 against Ryans did not appear justifiable.

"Watching it again several times, you don't see any indication that this person is going to flee, or they're going to fight," Burbank said after watching SLCPD's body camera footage of the incident.

District Attorney Sim Gill and other public officials learned about the incident after The Salt Lake Tribune obtained the body camera footage and published a report in August, prompting questions about SLCPD's handling of the matter.

"There was nothing that caught our attention that stood outside the norm, as far as, there was not a complaint made to Internal Affairs to get the process going back in April," said Deputy Chief Jeff Kendrick in an August 12 interview, adding that it "would have been our preference to take a look back in April."

The aggravated assault charge filed against Pearce is a second-degree felony.

The Salt Lake Police Association told KSTU on Wednesday that the board voted to provide legal representation to Pearce, using the attorney for the association.

President Steve Winters said they continue to stand behind Pearce, and the actions he took. Winters said they feel Pearce was within his legal right and within city policy to take those actions.

Jeanetta Williams, President of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, released this statement:

While the NAACP supports effective law enforcement, we must also exercise our constitutional rights to ensure law enforcement works as it should to protect all Americans regardless of race or ethnicity. The NAACP reviewed the video and based upon the law, agree with District Attorney Sim Gill. The NAACP has concerns over the officer’s conduct and felt that his actions were not within the policy of the police department. The victim was complying to the officer’s commands and was not resisting. The victim was doing everything that we tell folks to do, yet the K-9 officer Pearce ordered his dog to attack the victim while he clearly had his hands up and the victim was saying, “I am complying.”

The Salt Lake City Police Department released the following statement Wednesday afternoon:

The Salt Lake City Police Department has been informed of the District Attorney's decision to file criminal charges against Officer Nickolas Pearce stemming from the April 24, 2020 incident involving Officer Pearce, one of the Department's K-9 officers, and Mr. Jeffery Ryans.

The Department has also received the report from the independent investigation conducted by the City's Civilian Review Board.

The Department takes the District Attorney's decision and Civilian Review Board's findings very seriously. Both will be evaluated and taken into account as the Department is finalizing its Internal Affairs investigation.

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.

This story was originally published by David Wells at KSTU.