A Utah police officer was charged with aggravated assault almost five months after body camera footage showed him ordering his K-9 police dog to bite a Black man who was on his knees with his hands in the air, prosecutors said.
Salt Lake City Police Officer Nickolas Pearce was charged Wednesday with second-degree felony aggravated assault in the April 24 incident that left 36-year-old Jeffrey Ryans with lasting leg injuries and disfigurement, the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office said.
Ryans “wasn’t resisting arrest,” District Attorney Sam Gill told The Salt Lake Tribune. “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.”
Pearce, who is white, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Authorities responded to a domestic violence call at Ryans’ house, where officers confronted Ryans outside. The officers said they believed that Ryans — who had an existing protective order prohibiting him from going to the home — was trying to flee the scene, according to a report by the city’s Civilian Review Board.
Ryans did not appear to immediately follow Pearce’s order to get on the ground, but Ryans did appear to comply before Pearce ordered the dog four times to “hit,” the command for bite, the Civilian Review Board reported.
The dog first bit Ryans while he was on his knees with his arms raised. Pearce placed Ryans in handcuffs, and the dog continued to bite Ryans as he fell to the ground, crying in pain as Pearce intermittently told the dog “hit” and “good boy,” the video showed.
“I’m on the ground! I’m on the ground. Why are you biting me?” Ryans cried out at one point.
Ryans needed surgery for two lacerations on his left leg, one approximately 4 inches wide and 3 inches long and the second approximately 5 inches long and 1 inch wide, prosecutors said.
“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,” the district attorney’s office said in the charging documents.
The incident did not come to the attention of senior police officials until August when Ryans filed a civil lawsuit and the Tribune published body camera footage of Ryans’ arrest. Gill’s office also began investigating the incident at that time.
Pearce was placed on administrative leave pending the results of the investigations, and the department suspended its K-9 apprehension program amid an external review of its policies, procedures, training and application in the field, the department announced in August.
The police department said in a statement Wednesday that it took 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,” it said. “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.”
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