A police officer who ordered his K-9 to attack a Black man who was kneeling with his hands raised has been charged with assault, officials announced Wednesday.
Salt Lake City Police Officer Nickolas Pearce, 39, faces one count of aggravated assault, a second-degree felony, in connection with the April 24, 2020, incident, according to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
The charges come after the Salt Lake Tribune published body camera footage last month showing Pearce ordering the K-9 Tuco to "hit" Jeffery Ryans, a Black man whom the Tribune reported was violating a domestic violence protective order, as he complied with officers' orders. Pearce is also seen repeatedly telling the dog "good boy" as Ryans screamed and writhed in pain while being bitten.
The footage shows Pearce and the K-9 approaching Ryans, who was standing next to a fence in a grassy yard in the dark, and immediately telling him, "Get on the ground or you're going to get bit."
Ryans is then seen kneeling down and holding on to the fence with his right hand and raising his left in the air before Pearce instructs Tuco to engage Ryans.
"I’m on the ground, I’m on the ground. Why are you biting me," Ryans says as Pearce continues to order the dog to "hit" him, according to the video.
"I’m on the ground, stop! Ow, what the fuck! Holy shit," Ryans screams in distress while lying face down on the grass, as Pearce tells the dog "good boy."
According to court documents, Pearce and two other Salt Lake City police officers first made contact with Ryans through the fence and asked how they could access the backyard. Ryans complied and approached the officers with his hands raised and told them how to get into the backyard.
One of the officers remained on the other side of the fence and continued to speak with Ryans while Pearce, the K-9, and the third officer entered the backyard. Then the confrontation shown in the body camera footage ensued.
Ryans was transported to a hospital to receive treatment for the dog bites, according to the documents. His injuries required surgery and resulted in the "prolonged loss of use" of his left leg, as well as other complications and scarring, the documents said.
Pearce was suspended pending an investigation the day after the Tribune published the footage as part of a story about the incident, which included an interview with Ryans, who said he was about to leave for his job as a train engineer when the police showed up and began yelling and shining their lights on him.
“I wasn’t running,” he said. “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.”
An attorney for Ryans did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
As a result of the incident — which Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she and the police department's senior leadership only became aware of because of the Tribune's reporting — the city also suspended the use of police dogs to engage with suspects pending a review of its policies.
"I am disturbed by what I saw in that video, frustrated by how the situation was handled, and am committed to working to ensure neither happen again," Mendenhall tweeted on Aug. 12.
A summons to appear in court has been issued for Pearce, a spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office told BuzzFeed News. If convicted, Pearce faces up to 15 years in prison.
The Salt Lake City Police Department said in a statement Wednesday that it takes the decision to file criminal charges against Pearce and the findings of an independent investigation by the city's Civilian Review Board "very seriously."
"Both will be evaluated and taken into account as the Department is finalizing its Internal Affairs investigation," the statement said. "This can take some time, but we will carry this out as expediently as possible to bring a prompt conclusion to this matter."