Racial Injustice Utah

"You can't treat people differently just because of their religion or skin color," said Jeffrey Ryans in his attorney's office, Aug. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City. A Salt Lake City police officer who ordered a dog to attack Ryans, who had already put his hands in the air has been charged with aggravated assault, the district attorney's office said Wednesday, Sept. 16. Prosecutors say Ryans was in his backyard on April 24 when police were called to his home for an alleged domestic dispute. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY  — A Utah police officer was charged with aggravated assault after ordering a dog to attack a Black man who had put his hands in the air, prosecutors announced Wednesday.

Jeffery Ryans was in his backyard on April 24 when police responded to a domestic dispute call. The Salt Lake County district attorney's office said Ryans complied with officers' orders to raise his hands and remain in the backyard.

K9 officer Nickolas Pearce then told Ryans to get on the ground before kicking him in the leg, forcing him to his knees, and ordering the dog to bite Ryans, prosecutors said.

On body camera footage, Pearce can be heard repeatedly praising the animal and saying "good boy" while it latched onto Ryans' left leg for about 20 seconds as he was being put in handcuffs.

After he was bitten, Ryans underwent surgery and later experienced "prolonged loss of the use" of his leg, prosecutors said. His attorneys have said that the officer caused an avoidable injury that resulted in Ryans suffering nerve and tendon damage and infections that could lead to amputation.

It's rare for police officers to be charged with crimes in excessive-force allegations. During his decade in office, District Attorney Sim Gill has charged three officers accused of wrongly using deadly force. None were convicted. In two of those cases, charges were later dropped. The third was thrown out by a judge.

"Officers in their interactions with everyday citizens by virtue of who they are and the institution they represent does not absolve them from the responsibility to make sure that whatever force they use is being used in a lawful manner," Gill, a Democrat, said Wednesday.

After Ryans went public with his story in an article in The Salt Lake Tribune last month, the police department said it was opening an investigation and suspending the use of police dogs in apprehensions.

The department said Wednesday that it takes the district attorney's decision "very seriously" and that it will be considered as part of its internal affairs investigation.

It was unknown if Pearce has an attorney. A phone call to a number listed for him wasn't answered and no voicemail was set up.

Ryans' attorneys, Daniel Garner and Gabriel White, didn't immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Associated Press/Report for America

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