SALT LAKE CITY — Two years after the incident changed the way Salt Lake City police pursue suspects, a man bitten by a police dog has sued the department.
Jeffery Ryans, 38, filed his civil rights lawsuit in federal court earlier this month. It names the Salt Lake City Police Department and multiple officers, including K-9 handler Nickolas Pearce.
Pearce was handling a dog named Tuco who bit Ryans on April 24, 2020.
Police responded to a domestic disturbance call. When officers arrived, body camera footage shows Ryans was calmly smoking a cigarette in his backyard before leaving for work.
Yet, Pearce ordered Tuco to bite. Pearce continued telling the dog “Hit!,” the command to bite, even after Ryans was on the ground screaming in pain.
Ryans is asking for amounts to be determined at trial.
“One of the main factors that the courts look at is, ‘Is this person an active danger to the police at the time the force as used and are they actively resisting?’” said Adrian Mendiondo, a plaintiff lawyer in Kentucky who has litigated K-9 bite cases.
“If [Ryans] was in fact compliant,” Mendiondo added, “and he was not a direct danger to the officers, they had no business releasing that police dog.
“The problem with police dogs is although we look at them as a regular tool of law enforcement, they’re incredibly dangerous animals and they cause an incredible amount of harm.”
After the Ryans bite, Salt Lake City stopped using K-9s to apprehend suspects.
The problems have extended beyond Salt Lake City. A 2021 investigation by FOX 13 and The Salt Lake Tribune examined 39 body camera videos depicting K-9 bites from the three largest police departments in Salt Lake County: Unified Police Department, West Valley City and Salt Lake City.
In eight of those videos, suspects had their hands up or were face down when the dog attacked.
In seven cases, a K-9 continued to bite even after the suspects were in handcuffs.
On Thursday, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill told The Salt Lake Tribune his office was still reviewing some old dog bite cases to determine whether police committed any crimes. He’s previously said he found some incidents amounting to misdemeanor assault but could not prosecute because the statute of limitations expired.
Gill has already charged Pearce with two felony counts of assault – one for Tuco biting Ryans and for another case where Pearce is accused of lifting the dog so it could bite a woman trying to surrender. A judge will decide next month whether Pearce should stand trial.
Both Salt Lake City police and Pearce’s criminal defense attorney declined comment on the civil lawsuit Thursday. Pearce remains on administrative leave with the police department.