Salt Lake City officer may be tried in case of K-9 assault, judges rules

Prosecutors argued the attack on a detainee in 2020 was not only “unreasonable” but also “entirely unnecessary”.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City K-9 Officer Nickolas Pearce, left, watches body camera video of a 2020 arrest with his defense attorney Nathan Evershed during Pearce’s preliminary hearing before the 3rd Circuit Judge. District Court, William K. Kendall, on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. On Thursday, December 15, 2022, a judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to try Pearce on a charge of aggravated assault arising from resulting from the arrest.

A Salt Lake County judge ruled Thursday that there was enough evidence to try a Salt Lake City K-9 officer for aggravated assault resulting from a violent arrest in 2020.

It’s the first case of use of force by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill in which a K-9 officer was tied up for a trial, Gill said Thursday night. The hearing date is scheduled for June 2023.

Officer Nickolas Pearce has been accused of killing Jeffrey Ryans with his police dog during the April 2020 arrest. Prosecutors argued in a court filing that Officer Nickolas Pearce’s use of force through his K-9 Tuco was not only “inappropriate, but entirely unnecessary.”

In body camera footage previously released by The Salt Lake Tribune, Pearce can be heard ordering his dog to attack Ryans, who is black, while the man was on his knees with his hands raised. Pearce is also heard saying “good boy” to his dog while biting Ryan’s, who is screaming in pain.

According to court documents, police were dispatched to a Salt Lake City home after Ryans got into an argument with his wife. Ryans also violated an active protection order by staying at the home, the documents say.

When police arrived, Pearce immediately began telling Ryans that he “was going to be bitten.”

Body cam footage shows that between the moment officers met Ryans in the backyard of the home, the moment they ordered him to get on the floor, and the moment Pearce ordered his K-9 to attack, only a few seconds had passed.

As the dog bites, Ryans is kneeling on one knee, about the same height as his shoulders, with his hands raised, the footage shows.

Prosecutors argued in court filings that Pearce’s actions fell short of the standards and training of peace officers and that they also “were in stark contrast” to the SLCPD’s policy of using force.

This policy states that an officer must never use unnecessary force and should only use force with “the utmost restraint” and “only after discussion, negotiation and persuasion have been determined inappropriate or ineffective”.

The policy also states that officers must refrain from “inflicting unnecessary pain or suffering and never engage in cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment of any person.”

“Defendant Pearce did not exercise restraint — unless one believes that 8 seconds of orders and promises to be ‘bitten’ are measures of restraint,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing. “It represented the avoidable infliction of pain and injury to a person who, video evidence shows, was attempting to comply with police orders.”

Pearce’s attorneys argued the state had failed to provide evidence that Pearce’s conduct was “objectively unreasonable” within the meaning of the legal definition of aggravated assault and use of force during arrest.

District Judge William K. Kendall disagreed.

“The following facts make it clear that the State has presented sufficiently credible evidence that the defendant’s use of force or force was objectively unreasonable: (1) the duration of the K9 attack, (2) that Mr. Ryans previously ‘ ‘effectively subdued’ appeared at or early in the attack and (3) that there is little, if any, evidence that Mr. Ryans resisted or attempted to flee,” Kendall said in his Thursday verdict.

Prosecutors also proved that Pearce’s use of the K-9 force constituted the use of a “dangerous weapon” or “other means or force likely to result in death or serious physical injury,” the judge ruled, citing the “photos of Mr. Ryans’ injuries alone.”

Ryans testified in July that he lost feeling in his leg the night of the attack.

“This unlawful use of force would likely have resulted in serious bodily harm or death,” prosecutors wrote. “It left a permanent mark on Jeffery Ryans and shook the confidence of every person in this community who has put their trust in the police to serve them and protect them.”

On Thursday night, Gill praised the “great job” of the prosecution team. “We continue to believe in our charges,” he said, “and we will let the trial play itself out as we move forward.”

Pearce initially faced two charges for aggravated assault in connection with two separate K-9 attacks. In July, Kendall dismissed one of the counts of the charges after a witness who was supposed to testify failed to show up. Prosecutors could potentially re-indict him at a later date.

– Tribune staffer Paighten Harkins contributed to this report. Salt Lake City officer may be tried in case of K-9 assault, judges rules

Justin Scacco

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