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Utah officer accused of siccing dog on Black man is charged with felony

The police dog bit the man even though he "certainly wasn’t posing an imminent threat of violence or harm to anyone .... and was being compliant," the district attorney said.

A Salt Lake City police officer who allegedly sicced a K9 on a Black man who had his hands in the air has been charged with aggravated assault, authorities said.

Officer Nickolas Pearce was charged with the second-degree felony on Wednesday by the Salt Lake County District Attorney over the incident on April 24.

Jeffrey Ryans was in his wife's backyard when confronted by Salt Lake City police who were responding to a report of a domestic dispute, prosecutors said.

In disturbing body-camera footage first published by the Salt Lake City Tribune and obtained by NBC News, the officers can be seen talking with Ryans in the 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 approached Ryan and ordered him to get on his knees, according to prosecutors.

The video shows Pearce saying, “Get on the ground or you’re going to get bit.”

"While Ryans was on his knees with his hands in the air, Pearce ordered K9 Tuco to engage Ryans," prosecutors said in a probable cause statement. Ryans did not "express any intentions or engage in any actions reflecting he was going to resist the officers," the statement said.

"When K9 Tuco engaged and was biting Ryans, Pearce continually praised and encouraged K9 Tuco. K9 Tuco’s biting of Ryans continued while being praised and encouraged by Pearce," according to the probable cause statement.

Pearce was placed on leave after the release of footage in August. The Salt Lake City Police Department also at the time suspended its K9 program.

Police said in a statement Wednesday that if the department's internal affairs division finds that Pearce violated policy, the chief's office " will follow the disciplinary process required under state and federal law."

Jeffery Ryans discusses his encounter with Salt Lake City police at his attorney's office on Aug. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City.Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune / AP file

The department did not respond immediately to a request for comment Thursday morning.

The Salt Lake City Police Association, a union representing members of the police department, could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.

The union's president, Steven Winters, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the decision to file charges was political and that Pearce's actions were legal.

“We believe his actions that evening were justified and in the bounds of the law. Officer Pearce is an excellent officer and is without question a good dog handler. We’re hopeful that the criminal justice system will [run] its course and take care of this manner,” Winters said.

The district attorney's office told the Tribune it was clear that 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. He was fenced in an area and was being compliant,” District Attorney Sim Gill said.

Pearce was not in custody as of Thursday morning. A court date has yet to be set.

One of Ryans' lawyers, Daniel S. Garner, said in a statement, “We believe the criminal charges filed today are an important step in Jeffery’s pursuit of justice.”

Ryans' lawyers on June 29 filed a notice of claim, the first step in filing a lawsuit, which alleged that Pearce’s dog, Tuco, bit Ryans several times for roughly one minute.

On each side of his leg, Ryans suffered two-inch gashes, one of Ryans' lawyers, Gabriel White, told NBC News in August.