A Salt Lake City police officer was charged with aggravated assault on Wednesday, five months after he ordered his police dog to attack a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air, prosecutors said.
The officer, Nickolas J. Pearce, ordered the dog to bite the man, Jeffrey Ryans, even though Mr. Ryans was doing nothing to resist officers during a domestic violence call on April 24, according to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office.
Repeatedly saying “good boy,” Officer Pearce encouraged the dog, Tuco, as it sank its teeth into Mr. Ryans’s leg, and Mr. Ryans cried out in pain, the district attorney’s office said in a probable cause statement.
The episode came to light in August, when The Salt Lake Tribune published a report on the encounter that included body-camera footage.
Utah state law allows officers to use force, but “when you cross that threshold, you need to be held accountable, just like anybody else,” Sim Gill, the Salt Lake County district attorney, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Aggravated assault, a felony, carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
Officer Pearce, 39, who is white and has been on the force for 14 years, was placed on administrative leave in August, and remained on leave on Wednesday, according to the Salt Lake City Police Department. It was not immediately clear whether he had a lawyer. There was no answer at phone numbers listed under his name.
Officer Pearce has said that he believed Mr. Ryans was grasping a fence to try to stand up and he “interpreted those actions as being a prelude to fighting the officers,” according to a report by the city’s Civilian Review Board. He “opted to use his K-9 to stop these actions,” and said he told the dog “good boy” because dogs respond to positive reinforcement and do not naturally want to bite people, the report said.
The review board concluded, however, that the “critical element, the attempted standing up that led to the deployment of the K-9, was simply not apparent on the two cameras that captured this portion of the events.” The board said it found that Officer Pearce had used excessive force.
Mr. Ryans is filing a lawsuit against the Salt Lake City Police Department, according to his lawyer, Gabriel K. White. “We’re optimistic, with the criminal charges, there will be some measure of justice for Jeffrey,” he said.
The encounter began when several officers responded to a report of domestic violence and found Mr. Ryans in a backyard, the probable cause statement said.
Officer Pearce told Mr. Ryans to get on the ground or he would be bitten, while other officers ordered Mr. Ryans to come to the fence and asked him how they could enter the backyard, the statement said.
Mr. Ryans complied with officers’ commands, raising his hands and telling them they could enter through a gate, the statement said. Mr. Ryans kept his hands visible and stayed where he was, as instructed, the statement said.
When Officer Pearce came around the corner of the house with his dog, he once again told Mr. Ryans to get on the ground or he would be bitten, the statement said.
Three seconds later, the officer kicked Mr. Ryans in the leg, even though Mr. Ryans was not resisting, the statement said. Mr. Ryans dropped to his knees and kept his hands raised. Officer Pearce then ordered Tuco to bite Mr. Ryans.
Mr. Ryans was taken to a hospital with two lacerations — one about 4 inches by 3 inches, and the other about 5 inches by 1 inch, the statement said. He experienced the “prolonged loss” of the use of his left leg after surgery to treat the wounds, the statement said, adding that complications from the dog bites had resulted in “protracted impairment” of Mr. Ryans’s leg and visible scarring.
In August, Mayor Erin Mendenhall of Salt Lake City said that the use of police dogs “to engage with suspects” would be suspended until officials could review city policies and practices. That suspension remains in effect, pending the outcome of reviews by the Police Department and a commission on racial equality in policing, Ms. Mendenhall said on Wednesday.
“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,” Ms. Mendenhall, a Democrat, said in a statement. “We will not back down from the work that must be done in evolving our policies, culture and budget to ensure that S.L.C.P.D. is the gold standard in law enforcement.”
In a statement on Wednesday, the Salt Lake City Police Department acknowledged the charges against Officer Pearce and said it had received the Civilian Review Board’s report.
“The department takes the district attorney’s decision and the Civilian Review Board’s findings very seriously,” the statement said. “Both will be evaluated and taken into account as the department is finalizing its internal affairs investigation.”
If the internal affairs investigation finds that Officer Pearce violated policy, the police chief will follow the disciplinary process required under state and federal law, the department said. “This can take some time,” it added, “but we will carry this out as expediently as possible to bring a prompt conclusion to this matter.”