Salt Lake City police officer Nickolas Pearce is now facing second-degree felony aggravated assault charges following an incident in April where he ordered his police dog to bite a Jeffery Ryans, a Black man, even as Ryans was kneeling on the ground with his hands in the air.
Ryans, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill noted, “wasn’t resisting arrest,” the Salt Lake Tribune reports.
“He certainly wasn’t posing an imminent threat of violence or harm to anyone and he certainly wasn’t concealed. He was fenced in an area and was being compliant,” Gill added.
If convicted, Pearce could face up to 15 years in prison.
Salt Lake City police acknowledged the criminal charges against once of its own, as well as the fact that the city’s Civilian Review Board also ruled that Pearce violated policy when he set his dog on Ryans, both of which the department said would be evaluated as it conducts its own investigations.
“The department takes the district attorney’s decision and the Civilian Review Board’s findings very seriously,” the department said in a statement. “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.”
The April 24 incident started when police were called to Ryans’s house after someone heard the 36-year-old arguing with his wife. Ryans had stepped outside in his backyard to smoke a cigarette when officers made contact with him and started screaming.
“Get on the ground!” an officer can be heard yelling. “Get on the ground or you’re gonna get bit.”
Ryans is seen on body camera footage getting on his knees with his hands in the air. However, a few seconds later Pearce is heard instructing his dog to “hit,” prompting the animal to attack Ryans, who was bit in the leg.
“I am on the ground. Why are you biting me?” Ryans could be heard trying to reason.
“Good boy,” Pearce could be heard telling the dog.
Ryans ended up with nerve and tendon damage and having to deal with infections as well as difficulty walking.
In the fallout over the incident, Pearce was suspended, as was the use of police dogs to engage with suspects, pending review.
Pearce is still receiving support however, mainly from the Salt Lake City Police Association.
“We believe his actions that evening were justified and in the bounds of the law,” Steven Winters, the president of the association, said according to the Tribune. “Officer Pearce is an excellent officer and is without question a good dog handler. We’re hopeful that the criminal justice system will [run] its course and take care of this manner.”
Pearce himself told the Civilian Review Board that he ordered his dog to bite Ryans because he saw one of Ryans’s hand holding the fence and believed that Ryans would fight.
“Pearce felt 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 notes.