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3 years later, police officer remains under investigation by his own department

Posted at 5:39 PM, Jun 07, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City’s civilian review board decided within weeks police officer Nickolas Pearce used excessive force.

Prosecutors decided within months to charge Pearce with felony assault.

Salt Lake City police, however, are still investigating Pearce – three years after he ordered his dog to bite a man who has testified he was complying with police.

“I find it hard to believe,” said Matt Evans, a retired Salt Lake City police sergeant who used to conduct internal affairs cases for the department. “I've never seen an internal affairs case go for three years. Most homicides don't take that long.”

Attorney for Salt Lake City say the pending internal affairs investigation is one reason police Chief Mike Brown should not testify at Pearce’s trial. City attorneys are asking a judge to quash a prosecution subpoena calling Brown to the witness stand.

“It would be premature and improper for Chief Brown to speak to or opine on the ultimate issues in this case while that internal affairs investigation is still ongoing,” the May 30 motion says.

The judge has not yet ruled on the motion. Pearce’s trial was recently postponed to January. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the police department says Pearce remains on administrative leave. Public records show Salt Lake City paid him $162,000 in salary and benefits in 2022.

Internal affairs investigators look at whether officers violated department policy.

“They're basically the HR of the police department,” Evans explained.

Evidence of any crimes committed by officers is typically turned over to another agency to investigate. Completing an internal affairs case is the first step toward deciding whether to discipline, terminate or retain an officer.

Salt Lake City’s agreement with the police union says internal investigations are supposed to be finished within 75 days – unless the chief grants an extension.

On April 24, 2020, Pearce arrived at what was reported to be a possible domestic dispute. Officers found Jeffrey Ryans outside his home smoking a cigarette.

Video shows what transpired, and Ryans has talked about it with reporters and on the witness stand at a preliminary hearing in Pearce’s criminal case. He was answering questions from officers and was about to obey a command to go facedown on the ground when Pearce is heard ordering a dog named Tuco to “hit.”

That’s the command to bite.

Ryans screamed as Pearce continued yelling “hit” and Tuco continued biting. Ryans has said there is permanent injury to one of his legs. He filed a civil suit against the department. It has since been dismissed.

The facts are “pretty cut and dried,” Evans said, “especially since the internal affairs is mostly just seeing if there's any rules violations or training issues.”

Brown is not bound by the opinion of prosecutors or the Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board. If Pearce is convicted of the felony, however, Utah law says he would lose his police certification.

“It's upsetting to the taxpayers,” Evans said, “because they're like, ‘Why are we paying this person that they're supposed to be terminated? Or, you know, should he be back on the road?’ It's all this indecisiveness that doesn't benefit anyone, except for the chief.”

Brown has moved decisively in some internal affairs investigations, including in 2017 terminating officer Jeff Payne within weeks of the public seeing him on camera arresting a nurse who refused to draw blood from an unconscious suspect. Payne was not charged with a crime.

But FOX 13 News reported earlier this year how in other cases, Brown refused to make a decision that would have closed internal affairs cases, though none of those have gone on for three years.

“Because he didn't want to go through termination and have to testify in court,” Evans said. “He was just hoping they would just leave willingly.”

Brown, through a spokesperson, declined an interview request, citing the pending case against Pearce. An attorney for officer Pearce also declined to comment

Andrew Wittenberg, a spokesman for Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall sent FOX 13 News a statement:

“Speaking generally, where there is an ongoing criminal prosecution and civil suit, the city must weigh the additional information that may be obtained from those matters that is not available to the internal investigation in determining whether to conclude that internal investigation.”

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