SALT LAKE CITY — Prosecutors this week took the unusual step of filing a criminal charge against a police officer.
But whether the officer will be convicted and whether the case will even make it to trial are both issues highly in question.
The case involves a Salt Lake police K-9 officer whose police dog bit a Black man who prosecutors say was not resisting, causing serious injuries to the man’s leg.
Nickolas John Pearce, 39, of Herriman, a 14-year veteran with the Salt Lake City Police Department, is charged with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony. He is accused of kicking a man crouched down in a backyard who appeared to be obeying officers’ commands to put his hands in the air and was not resisting, and then deploying his police K-9 Tuco on him.
The bite marks that Jeffery Ryans, 36, suffered from Tuco left his leg permanently disfigured and “resulted in Ryans’ prolonged loss of the use of his left leg,” according to charging documents.
Utah State Fraternal Order of Police President Brent Jex said his organization was “stunned” to hear about the criminal charge. The nonprofit organization consisting of more than 4,000 police officers statewide, advocates for the safety and overall working conditions of officers.
The organization has had a contentious history with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
Jex conceded that because Pearce is not a member of the order, “we do not have the case details or position to provide substantive comment on this case at this time.”
However, both Jex and Utah State Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Ryan Carver believe an outside agency should have conducted the investigation and not Gill’s office. The group also believes Gill should have waited until Salt Lake police concluded their internal affairs investigation.
Furthermore, Carver believes the current political climate is the driving force behind the criminal charge being filed, calling the charge “a political move to relieve pressure on (Gill).”
“I don’t think there’s anybody in law enforcement who doubts that,” he said.
“It seems likely that in order to solve his own political problems, he is in a rush to charge this case in only 30 days. Like he has done so many times before, we suspect that Sim Gill is letting his political ambitions set his own office up for yet another failed prosecution,” Jex said in a prepared statement.
Carver added that Gill has charged a few law enforcement officers in a use-of-force cases over the years, but said, “He hasn't gotten one conviction yet.”
The Salt Lake City Civilian Review Board also concluded in its independent investigation that Pearce did use excessive force in making the arrest and didn’t do enough to de-escalate the situation.
Jex urged the media and the public to reserve judgment on Pearce.
“Like any other American, this officer is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” he said. “We hope that the public can pause for a moment to consider that only Sim Gill’s version of events is known at this time. Given the many previous cases where he has misled the public, and ultimately been embarrassed by having cases dismissed and withdrawn, the wise observer will begin by doubting that Sim Gill is telling the whole truth here, either.”
It is rare for Gill’s office to conclude that a police officer is legally unjustified in using deadly force or less than lethal force, and even more rare for an officer to face criminal charges.
The highest profile case in recent years occurred in 2012 when West Valley police detective Shaun Cowley shot and killed Danielle Willard, 21, during a drug investigation as she attempted to drive away. Cowley contended he fired his weapon when Willard put her car — that he was standing behind — in reverse and attempted to hit him. Gill, however, said Cowley was actually standing at the side of the car and did not face imminent danger.
The shooting was found to be legally unjustified and Cowley was charged with manslaughter in 2014. But the case failed to make it past the preliminary hearing stage when a judge dismissed the charges, saying prosecutors had not met their low burden of proof to send the case to trial.
Most recently, officer Andrew Reed O’Gwin with Adult Probation and Parole was charged with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony, after prosecutors determined he was not legally justified in shooting Joe Alvin Gomez in 2017. Gomez survived, but after he was charged in federal court with drug distribution, it essentially made him a less credible witness, and the charges were dropped in 2019.
The focus ought to be the violation of the law by any person in our society whether they are a civilian or law enforcement. Our expectation is no one is above the law and we hold people accountable.
–Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill
In 2019, Murray police officer Luis Alberto Argueta-Salazar was convicted of assault, a class B misdemeanor, after pleading no contest. Argueta entered into a plea in abeyance, meaning the case was dismissed last month after he successfully completed a year of probation, according to court records. Argueta resigned from his department after body camera video showed him punching a 16-year-old boy.
Gill agreed with the Fraternal Order of Police on Pearce’s presumption of innocence, though he could not discuss the active Pearce case specifically, but said the focus should not be on the fact that prosecuting law enforcement officers in use-of-force cases is traditionally unsuccessful.
“The focus ought to be the violation of the law by any person in our society whether they are a civilian or law enforcement,” he said. “Our expectation is no one is above the law and we hold people accountable.”
Gill concedes there are challenges to prosecuting police officers.
“I think that speaks to the trust we as a community have given law enforcement as an institution and those we entrust to keep us safe. But transparency and accountability have not kept up with the expectations of our community over the years,” he said.
Over time, certain processes within law enforcement have been shielded from the public, Gill said, and institutional erosion has led to public distrust. In order to gain public trust, officers who break the law must be held accountable, he said.
“When we fail to hold bad officers accountable, good officers suffer,” Gill said.
The district attorney said prosecuting an officer is not any more difficult than prosecuting a regular citizen in that prosecutors have to make sure they are ready in either scenario to go into court and prove their case.