A Salt Lake County judge in a preliminary hearing on Tuesday dismissed an assault charge against a Salt Lake City K-9 officer accused of unnecessarily chasing his police dog at detainees.
Officer Nickolas Pearce initially faced two aggravated assault charges in connection with two separate K-9 attacks. At the beginning of Tuesday’s six-hour hearing, Third Circuit Judge William K. Kendall dismissed one of the counts of the charges unaffected after a witness who was supposed to testify failed to appear. Prosecutors could potentially re-indict him at a later date.
The K-9 officer is still facing assault charges in connection with the April 2020 arrest of Jeffrey Ryans.
The Salt Lake City Police Department stopped using K-9s in arrests and vowed to investigate after The Salt Lake Tribune released body camera footage of Ryan’s arrest showing Pearce ordering his dog to attack Ryans, who is black while the man was on his knees with his hands in the air.
“I did exactly what they told me to do,” Ryan testified Tuesday. “So I was kind of confused as to why I was being attacked.”
Ryans also testified Tuesday that he lost his wife, job and feeling in his leg after that night’s attack.
Salt Lake County prosecutors originally charged Pearce in connection with the September 2020 arrest of Ryans, but filed a second charge of aggravated assault related to a traffic stop in 2019 after prosecutors encountered the case during their review was. That count was dismissed on Tuesday.
In connection with the Ryans’ case, prosecutors called Ryans on Tuesday; SLCPD officers Cody Orgill and Kevin Jewkes; and retired Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training K-9 trainer Wendell Nope testified Tuesday.
Pearce was present in the courtroom but did not comment on the case-file, except to confirm that he was waiving his right to testify. Before the hearing, a group of officers lined a sidewalk near the courthouse entrance and clapped, some slapping Pearce on the back as he walked in with his lawyers.
Prosecutors argue the behavior was illegal and violated police policy
Attorneys spent most of the hearing questioning each of the witnesses about what happened on April 24, 2020, after one of Ryan’s children called 911 to report that Ryans and his wife had been fighting.
Referring to body camera footage, 911 call recordings and excerpts from official reports, prosecutor Andrew Deesing argued that Pearce’s conduct was not only illegal but also violated the SLCPD’s own use of force because Ryans complied when Pearce ordered his dog to “hit,” or bite, Ryan’s.
Body camera footage shows that between the moment officers meet Ryans in his backyard, the moment they order him to get on the ground, and the moment Pearce orders his K-9 to attack , only a few seconds have 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.
Deesing asked the other two responding officers — Orgill and Jewkes — to read a portion of the SLCPD’s policy on the use of force, which states: “Force should be used only with the utmost restraint and only where discussion, negotiation and persuasion work.” have been found inappropriate or ineffective.”
“While the use of force is occasionally unavoidable,” the policy goes on to say, “every law enforcement officer will refrain from causing unnecessary pain or suffering and will never engage in cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment of any person.”
Deesing claimed Ryans received conflicting orders from police – he was asked to both get on the floor and get on his knees – and complied by getting on one knee and holding his hands up.
When asked if Ryans complied, Orgill said Ryans did not do so “immediately.”
The prosecutor and Orgill disagreed over their definition of “immediately.” What if Deesing ordered Orgill to hit the floor in the courtroom “immediately,” the prosecutor asked – would you do it quicker than Ryans?
“If there was a dog, much quicker,” Orgill said, drawing a few laughs from the gallery behind Pearce.
The scene argued by the defense was dynamic, dangerous
Defense attorneys Tara Isaacson and Nathan Evershed tried to show officers arrived at a dynamic and potentially dangerous scene, where Pearce ordered the police dog to attack after Ryans gave them growing concerns.
Isaacson pointed out that it was late at night and difficult to see. Officers had received a call reporting that Ryans had physically abused his wife, and domestic violence calls are often dangerous for responding officers.
When officers arrived, Ryan’s wife and children appeared scared. And when Ryans didn’t respond to their commands inside the house, they later found him in the backyard — perhaps trying to escape — and he was slow to obey their commands.
Defense attorneys instructed witnesses to read from another section of the SLCPD handbook: “The objective appropriateness of any particular use of force is not analyzed in hindsight, but takes into account the fact that officers make quick decisions about the extent of force to be used.” need tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations.”
K-9 expert Wendell Nope said Pearce was “rushed” that night, testifying that Pearce’s first command — “Get on the floor or you’ll get bitten” — was too aggressive and didn’t allow enough time for Ryan’s to allow it understand and react before commanding the dog to bite.
Nope said he didn’t think Pearce should have ordered the dog to bite and that the bite took ten seconds longer than he should have done.
In her cross-examination, Isaacson pointed out that there is no national standard for police behavior at K-9. She asked Nope if it was true that you could have three K-9 trainers in a room and the only thing two could agree on was that the third trainer was wrong. No, agreed that this is a general axiom.
Defense attorneys planned to call another K-9 expert to testify, but decided against it when it left around 4 p.m
Judge Kendall ended the hearing by asking the attorneys to present written arguments. The state’s brief is due Oct. 21, and the defense has until Nov. 11 to file a response.
The state’s final response is due December 9. The judge will then decide if there is enough evidence to go to court.