Salt Lake police suspend K9 program after video shows dog biting Black man with his hands up

The Salt Lake City Police Department suspended its K9 program on Wednesday, one day after the release of an officer’s body-camera footage that showed his dog appearing to repeatedly bite a Black man kneeling on the ground with his hands up.

In a statement, the department said it was enlisting outside experts to conduct a thorough review of the program’s policies and procedures while various investigations examine the April 24 incident that left Jeffrey Ryans, 36, with severe injuries that his lawyers said may require amputation.

The K9 officer involved in the encounter, Nickolas Pearce, was placed on administrative leave while the city’s civilian review board and internal affairs investigators investigate, the department said.

“I am disturbed by what I saw in that video, frustrated by how the situation was handled, and am committed to working to ensure neither happen again,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted Wednesday.

Lawyers for Ryans, a train engineer, said in an interview Wednesday that he was getting ready to go to work early that morning when officers arrived at his wife’s home, where he was staying.

In disturbing body-camera footage first published by the Salt Lake City Tribune, the officers can be seen talking with Ryans, who’s standing in the home’s backyard. “I’m just going to work,” he says. One officer asks how they can get to the yard; another appears to say Ryans is going jump the fence.

Pearce then appears to walk to the other side of the house, where he approaches Ryans and says, “Get on the ground or you’re going to get bit.”

As Ryans kneels with his hands up, Pearce appears to say “hit” and “good boy” while his dog bites Ryans, who repeatedly shouts in pain and asks why the dog is biting him.

The Salt Lake Police Department declined a request for an interview with Pearce, and the Salt Lake Police Association did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday night.

In a notice of claim dated June 29 that was filed with the Salt Lake City Recorder’s Office — the first step in filing a lawsuit — lawyers for Ryans said Pearce’s dog, Tuco, bit him several times for roughly one minute.

On each side of his leg, Ryans suffered two-inch gashes, one of his lawyers, Gabriel White said.

“We’ve seen lots of dog bites, but this one looks like something else,” he said. “I would’ve assumed he had an accident with a chainsaw.”

Salt Lake City police spokesman Detective Greg Wilking said that authorities had been called to the home because of a report of domestic violence. Citing the pending lawsuit, Wilking declined to discuss details of the incident, but in the body-camera footage, officers can be heard telling Ryans after he was bitten that he violated a protective order and wasn’t allowed to be there.

In an interview Wednesday, Gabriel White and another lawyer, Daniel Garner, said Ryans’ wife had secured the order last year amid “disagreements.” The arguments weren’t violent, they said, though she told Ryans to move out in December. They later reconciled, and he moved back in when the coronavirus outbreak began, when she asked for help with their three children, they said.

After speaking with someone in the local district attorney’s office, she believed the protective order had been lifted, they said.

“Unbeknownst to her, a judge has to lift it,” Garner said.

A request for comment left with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office was not returned Wednesday. Garner and White declined to make Ryans or his wife available for an interview.

The lawyers said they weren’t sure who reported the alleged domestic violence on April 24, but they said there are no allegations that anything violent occurred. “It was just a marital disagreement,” White said. “Then she went to bed.”

Wilking said that Ryans was arrested on suspicion of violating a protective order, charges that are pending.

Garner and White said that Ryans was laid off after he was injured. Multiple surgeries have left him tens of thousands of dollars in debt, they said.

They said the officials named in notice of claim have 60 days to respond. “If they take responsibility, there won’t be a lawsuit,” Garner said.

“My client’s main goal is to see the reforms that the nation has been having a conversation about,” Garner said. “And he’s got a mountain of medical bills he has to deal with now.”