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A Salt Lake City police officer ordered a dog to bite a kneeling Black man. Now he faces a felony charge.

Body-camera video from the Salt Lake City Police Department on April 24 shows officer Nickolas Pearce order a police dog to bite the leg of Jeffery Ryans. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Jeffery Ryans was in his backyard early one morning in April when a Salt Lake City police officer, with a dog in tow, rounded the corner and shined a light on him.

“Get on the ground, or you’re gonna get bit,” officer Nickolas Pearce yelled at Ryans, a 36-year-old Black man. Pearce, who is White, was there on a domestic violence call.

As Ryans began kneeling, Pearce kicked down his left leg and ordered the dog to sink his teeth into his flesh, according to body-camera footage published by the Salt Lake Tribune in August.

Pearce, 39, faces criminal charges for using excessive force, police said on Wednesday. Salt Lake City District Attorney Sim Gill (D) told the Tribune that the charges were necessary because Ryans wasn’t resisting arrest.

“He certainly wasn’t posing an imminent threat of violence or harm to anyone, and he certainly wasn’t concealed,” Gill said. “He was fenced in an area and was being compliant.”

Ryans’s arrest is the latest fallout for police officers accused of using excessive force against Black men. On Sunday, a Georgia sheriff’s deputy was fired after body-camera footage showed him punching Roderick Walker, a Black man who was in a car pulled over for a broken taillight. In Rochester, N.Y., seven officers were suspended earlier this month after a video showed them placing a hood on Daniel T. Prude’s head and placing pressure on his neck. Prude, 41, died days later from asphyxiation.

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Ryans’s daughter called 911 in the early morning hours of April 24 to report that her father had been yelling and screaming and hit her mother, the Tribune reported. Ryans’s wife had a protective order against him, and he was not supposed to be in the house. But according to an investigation by the city’s Civilian Review Board, Ryans thought the order had been lifted and his wife had let him into the home.

Ryans was getting ready to leave for his job as a train engineer when at least three police officers arrived at about 3:30 a.m., according to Dan Garner, Ryans’s lawyer. Ryans was smoking a cigarette in the backyard when he was spotted by the officers standing at the front of the house. According to additional body-camera footage reviewed by The Washington Post, one officer ordered Ryans to stand at the fence while Pearce and another officer went around the house to meet him.

As Pearce and the K-9 named Tuco neared Ryans, Pearce ordered the man to get on the ground. Ryans raised his hands and began to kneel. Seconds later, Pearce can be heard instructing the dog to “hit,” which means bite.

The pain forced Ryans to fall from his knees onto his belly. Body-camera footage captured a confused Ryans yelling in pain.

“I’m on the ground. Why are you biting me? I’m on the ground. Stop!” Ryans said.

A second officer can be seen handcuffing Ryans, but the dog remains latched onto the man’s leg.

“Good boy, good boy,” Pearce said.

“Why are you guys doing this?” Ryans cried out.

Tuco held his bite into Ryans’s leg for about a minute before Pearce ordered him to stop. Upon seeing the leg, the officers called paramedics to examine Ryans’s injury.

Ryans has undergone several surgeries, and his doctors informed him that his leg risks amputation, according to Ryans’s lawyer.

According to the report from the Civilian Review Board, senior police officials learned of the incident when Ryans filed a lawsuit against the department in August. The report says that Pearce’s sergeant reviewed the footage after the April arrest and sent it to his lieutenant. But despite the department’s policy for reporting such incidents, the lieutenant neglected to notify his supervisors or contact the internal affairs department. The lieutenant has since retired, which the report says is unrelated to this case.

“The failure of the lieutenant to report this incident up the chain is disturbing and unacceptable,” the Civilian Review Board report said.

The Civilian Review Board also admonished Pearce and his fellow officer for ordering the dog to attack Ryans. “It seems that many lesser use of force options were available to the two officers,” the report said.

After the Tribune published the body-camera footage on Aug. 11, the police department suspended Pearce and opened an internal affairs investigation, and the city suspended the use of police dogs.

On Wednesday, the Salt Lake City Police Department confirmed that the district attorney’s office is pursuing criminal charges against Pearce. In a statement, the department said it “takes the district attorney’s decision and the Civilian Review Board’s findings very seriously,” and would consider their findings as they finalize an internal affairs investigation.

Pearce is charged with second-degree felony aggravated assault, which carries up to 15 years in prison, the Tribune reported.

Garner called the charges “an important step in Jeffery’s pursuit of justice.”