Salt Lake City officer charged with felony aggravated assault after K9 attacked man

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Salt Lake City Police Officer Nickolas Pearce is facing a felony charge after a K9 attacked a man on April 24. (Photo: Screengrab from SLCPD body camera footage){ }

Salt Lake City Police Officer Nickolas Pearce is facing a felony charge after a K9 officer attacked a man on April 24.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office announced the aggravated assault, second-degree felony, charge on Wednesday after it was filed in the Third District Court.

Pearce, his K9 Officer Tuco and two other officers responded to the area of 765 W. Justin Kay Court on April 24 because of a domestic violence report.

Charging documents state Pearce saw Jeffery Ryans, 36, the subject of the call, on the east side of the residence in the backyard area through a chain-link fence that bordered the yard.

Police responded to the home after someone called 911 saying they heard Ryans and his wife arguing. They said Ryans was violating a protective order his wife filed last December, and he wasn’t supposed to be at their home. Ryans previously told 2News he had been living there for weeks, and the protective order was in the process of being lifted.

Pearce and Tuco confronted Ryans through the fence. Pearce reportedly told Ryans to get on the ground or that the dog would bite. The three officers then asked Ryans to come to the fence to speak to them and asked him how they could access the backyard

RELATED: 911 call, body cam video released by police of K9 attack in alleged domestic violence call

Charging documents state Ryans complied with the officers' commands and approached them, raising his hands as instructed and told officers they could enter the backyard from the gate on the other side of the house.

An officer remained in the front yard and continued to speak to Ryans, while Pearce and the third officer entered the backyard.

With his hands still raised, Ryans told the officer that he lived at the residence and was going to work.

When Pearce came around the corner of the home with Tuco, charging documents state he saw Ryans in the same location he had previously been directed to stay while speaking with the other officer.

Pearce reportedly told Ryans to get on the ground "or he'd get bit."

"Ryans did not express any intentions or engage in actions reflecting he was going to resist the officers," the charging documents state. "Approximately three seconds after confronting Ryans, 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 K9 Tuco to engage Ryans."

Charging documents state Pearce "continually praised and encouraged" Tuco as the dog bit Ryans, who was pleading for it to stop. He reportedly questioned why he was being attacked when he was not resisting.

Another officer placed handcuffs on Ryans.

Medical personnel who responded to the scene described the wounds from the bites as large lacerations that needed medical care and Ryans was transported to the hospital.

Ryans said his injuries led to multiple surgeries and caused nerve damage.

"Ryans’ medical records reflect two lacerations described as approximately four-inch wide by three-inch-long and approximately five-inch long by one inch wide," charging documents state. "Ryans’ injuries required surgical care to properly treat the wounds and resulted in Ryans prolonged loss of the use of his left leg following surgery."

Complications resulting from the dog bites have resulted in protracted impairment of his leg and permanent disfigurement of the leg due to visible scarring from the dog bites.

His lawyers told 2News the officers reacted with such force because Ryans is Black.

After the attack, the department's K9 apprehension program was suspended until it is reviewed by "external subject matter experts."

Salt Lake City Police Department released the following statement Wednesday after the charges were announced:

"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 K9 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 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.

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."

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also released a statement it says:

"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. 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.

As a result of this case, SLCPD’s use of the K9 bite program continues to be suspended pending the outcome of policy and procedure reviews by both the Department and the Commission on Racial Equity in Policing. In addition, 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."