While a witness’ video shows St. Paul police officers assaulting Eric Hightower as he was arrested, newly released squad car video shows what happened after Hightower was placed in the backseat.  The YouTube video shows Officer Jesse Zilge kicking Hightower once in the chest as Hightower is lying on the ground, coughing.  Before the video was shot, Zilge had pepper-sprayed Hightower.  Zilge then handcuffed Hightower; drug him onto his feet, and with the assistance of another officer, slammed Hightower into the hood of a squad car.

St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus said in a statement that the video doesn’t show the entire context of what happened.

An arrest report says police used hands, fists and feet during the arrest, but the report does not describe the events shown in the video.  Zilge and an unnamed officer were put on leave following the incident.  Eric Hightower was suspected of making threats.  Hightower is already on the ground when the video made by a bystander begins. He can be heard shouting, “What are you arresting me for?” In an apparent response to something Zilge said, Hightower then asked, “Assault on who? Can you tell me what’s going on?” A male voice on the video can be heard saying Hightower had been shot with pepper spray. Several other voices heckle the officer. At one point, Hightower begins to cough and the officer kicks him in the chest once.  Zilge then handcuffs Hightower and, with the assistance of another officer, slams the suspect against the hood of a waiting police car.  At one point, the officer tells onlookers to calm down. “He beat up a woman last night,” Zilge said. Hightower responded: “You lying, man!”

Hightower was accused of threatening his ex-girlfriend on about August 24-28, 2012.  Specifically, he was charged with stalking, making terroristic threats and criminal damage of property. According to the complaint against him, which cites comments from his ex-girlfriend, Hightower strangled and threatened to kill her.

“Regardless of what he was getting charged with, I don’t think the actions were taken appropriately for somebody who’s not resisting,” Hightower’s cousin, Antoine Hightower told the media.

The squad car video shows that another officer drug Hightower into the car by his hair and then pepper-sprayed him in the ear while both were in the backseat.
Eric Hightower reacts by screaming, “He sprayed me in my ear. Ahhhh! Ahhhh, sir! My ear, my eye! Please!”

According to prosecutors, who refused to file any charges, the officer’s name is Matthew Gorans and he stepped in when officer Jesse Zilge had trouble getting Hightower into the squad car.  Chief Thomas Smith conducted an internal affairs investigation and decided to fire Gorans and suspend Zilge for one month.  The discipline isn’t final as a union grievance process is being sought.  Jeff Martin, St. Paul NAACP president, said that the officers should lose their jobs.

“As a taxpayer in St. Paul, I don’t want that type of officer protecting and serving my interests,” he said.

St. Paul Police Federation attorney Chris Wachtler said in a statement that officers in the case were “dealing with a known dangerous individual who refused to follow directives…”  An earlier, unrelated internal affairs investigation found Gorans used excessive force in a 2010 arrest of a man who later sued the city. The suit was settled in 2012 for $249,000.  Smith suspended Gorans that time for three days, writing:

“Your actions displayed not only conduct unbecoming a St. Paul police officer, but actions that indicate a lack of self-control…” The letter went on to warn that a continued disregard for the rules would result in increased discipline including termination.

According to internal police documents, Zilge stated he was aware that Hightower was combative with police in the past and that a crowd had begun to form.  The newly released squad car video, in which a camera was trained on the back seat of Zilge’s squad, shows what happened when officers tried to get Hightower into the car. Hightower can be heard saying he did nothing wrong and an officer telling him, “Have a seat.”  Hightower then asks police, “Please wipe my face, please?” in reference to when Zilge had used a chemical spray on Hightower while he was trying to arrest him.  On the video, officers are heard shouting at Hightower to get in the squad car. Hightower refuses and says, “Man, what am I being arrested for? I ain’t did nothing wrong.”  Gorans goes around to the other side of the squad car and, reaching across the back seat, pulls Hightower.  Someone, presumably an officer, can be heard saying, “Head first then, head first then.” Hightower says that he will sit.  Gorans pulls Hightower into the car by his hair and pepper-sprays him in his ear.

During the 5 minute ride to the county jail, Hightower complains and Zilge tells him to calm down.  Hightower asks why he is being arrested and Zilge responds because of what he did last night.  Hightower then asks again and Zilge responds, “I told you, Eric, several times. Either you’re not getting it or you’re dumb.”  At another point, Hightower says to Zilge, “I’m burning, man! Please hurry up. I’m burning! My eye and my ear!”  He asks Zilge, “Please, can you squirt some water back here, please?” As they arrive at the jail, Hightower pleads to have someone wipe his eyes.

St. Paul police procedure requires that chemical irritants only be used when in uniform and soft empty hand options are ineffective or not feasible under the circumstances to achieve control and compliance.  The policy does not require that a person be taken to a medical facility.  The policy instead says, “they are to “be put in front of a fan in the headquarters’ garage or at the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center until they are able to keep their eyes open.”  Greg Connor, a retired police officer and former University of Illinois Police Training Institute professor who taught officers in use of force, said he has never heard of officers being trained to spray a chemical irritant into someone’s ear.  Connor, who viewed the video Monday, said because most of Hightower’s body was already in the squad car when he was sprayed, he didn’t see why the chemical spray was needed.  Connor said he found the focus of the spray into the ear to be inappropriate.

The NAACP questioned why the police refused to wipe Hightower’s face.

“What’s the purpose of doing that to another human being who is cuffed in the back of a squad car, who is not going to harm any other human being?” Martin asked. “It’s simple basic humanity.”

Police released the videos in response to a Pioneer Press request. The police union said it objected to their release, saying it violates the state’s Peace Officer Discipline Procedures Act.”  Any member of the public viewing the video or the pictures out of context and apart from the rest of the investigation and circumstances surrounding the Hightower arrest could easily draw false conclusions about what occurred,” said the police union attorney, “The release could also prejudice any grievance process.”

Martin said for the actions to have been captured on video and “for these officers not to be charged takes away faith we have in the criminal justice system to be fair and impartial. To say they didn’t go beyond what they were called to do, I think is ludicrous.”

County attorney’s said that they had “insufficient proof” that there was “unreasonable force”.  The police union attorney stated the officers acted within their training.

The Olmsted County attorney’s office review said that when Zilge encountered Hightower, the man wasn’t following commands and eventually got on the ground but not onto his stomach as Zilge had ordered. Zilge kicked Hightower in the upper chest.  When officers had Hightower on his feet, the man turned his body in a way that police “characterized as an effort to head-butt Officer Zilge,” the review said. “The two officers act quickly and take Hightower towards a nearby squad car and force his upper body onto the hood of the squad car.”  Hightower resisted and Gorans went around to the other side, crawled across the back seat, grabbed Hightower and pulled his upper body onto the seat, the county attorney’s review said. Hightower’s feet were still outside the car, and two officers were trying to get his feet into the car.  “At that point, Officer Gorans uses his Mace and sprays it into Hightower’s face and right ear,” the review said. Officers were then able to get Hightower completely into the car.  The county attorney’s review also said, “Medical personnel suspect that Hightower had a punctured ear drum but the medical reports are inconsistent…”  Hightower pleaded guilty in May to gross misdemeanor domestic assault in the case he was being arrested for.  He isn’t set to be released until next year.

Watch the Squad Car Videos (Warning:  Profane Language):  Part 1  |  Part 2

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Comments
  1. Joyce says:

    The only difference between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’…used to be (in the 1950’s) “that the good guys carry a badge”…now a days, the only difference is ‘the color of their hats’,

    Like

    • The only difference is who gets away with it. If officers assault someone what do they get? Suspension, what would you get? Jail time and a record. If an officer lies to you, what do they get? Nothing, they are legally allowed to use that as an investigative method. What do you get if you lie to them? At least a year and again a record, as well as suspicion if you are ever a witness or victim in the future. What do they get if they hide evidence? Maybe fired, most likely suspended. What do prosecutor’s get? Told not to do it again. Way to punish’em. What would you get? Jail time and a record. The comparison’s go on and on. We entrust them with immense power, the power to take away someone’s life, liberty, and property and we hold them, to a lesser standard, even giving them immunity in some instances. What incentivizes them not to get power hungry or to do something shady or arrest, try, or convict someone innocent? Only their own conscience. It’s scary to me the amount of power in these situations that can go unchecked.

      Like

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