A YouTube video of apparent police brutality by a St. Paul cop has spurred public outcry and an internal affairs investigation. The footage shows the violent arrest on Tuesdayof 30-year-old Eric Hightower who is being maced, kicked, and punched by police officer Jesse Zilge. Hightower was arrested after his ex-girlfriend Kara Drew called police to report that he had “repeatedly called, harrassed, and threatened” her over a period of time. Yesterday, Hightower was formally charged with aggravated stalking, making terroristic threats, and fourth-degree criminal damage to property.
According to Hightower, the sequence of events unfolded as follows:
1. Hightower and a group of friends were walking to Lewis Park in St. Paul when a squad car stopped and an officer jumped out wielding a can of mace.
2. Without asking for his name or identification, the officer picked Hightower out of the group, told him once to “get down.” Hightower asked the officer if and why he was under arrest, who then began spraying him with tear gas as he again told Hightower to “get down.”
3. Hightower continued to ask the officer why he was under arrest, who responded only by repeatedly telling him to “shut up” and “turn over.”
4. As he began to turn over, Zilge pulled out his Taser and pointed it at Hightower. He then put the Taser away, “started getting agitated,” and again pulled out the can of tear gas.
5. Zilge ordered Hightower to “turn the f—- over” and began spraying him in the face with the tear gas. Officer Zilge then ran towards him, kicked him in the chest and chin, and pulled his hair.
6. When backup officers arrived and they tried to put the choking, coughing Hightower in the squad car, Zilge continued to spray him in the face with the chemical irritant. According to Hightower, the same officer held his head down and sprayed him directly in the ear.
A witness recorded the incident on video and the footage was posted to YouTube by Angela Hulbert, a friend of Hightower. On Wednesday, Hulbert contacted the office of St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman and spoke with internal affairs. Mayor Coleman released a written statement admonishing officer Zilge, stating that “The video of a St. Paul police officer striking a suspect raises serious questions about the conduct of the officer.”
Officer Zilge has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation.
This statement did not sit well with David Titus, the president of the St. Paul Police Federation. In response, Titus defended the officer, claiming that he was in an extremely dangerous situation without immediate backup. Titus continued that “maybe our officials shouldn’t make comments about their concern until the investigation has run its course.” Titus, who is an official himself, then made the pre-investigation comment that “This is a good cop.”
Police Chief Thomas Smith has addressed the incident in a much less polarized fashion and acknowledges that a complete investigation needs to be conducted:
“I want to know the entire story. I want to know what happened before this video started, exactly what everyone saw at the scene, both civilians and officers, and what they heard during the suspect’s arrest… I want to know what happened from start to finish in this instance… The public has a right to know as well.”
The St. Paul Police Federation continues to hold firmly to the position of president Titus, strongly and publiclydefending one of their own, and claiming that the video was filmed out of context:
“The St. Paul Police Department has begun a thorough review of the August 28 arrest of Eric Hightower. Once this process is complete, we believe the facts will show that a good cop was in a dangerous situation with a known dangerous individual.
The SPPF then went on to quote the official SPPD video advisory for squad footage to argue that the audio and visual information recorded should not be trusted because a camera lacks the subjectivity of an eyeball: “This recording depicts visual and audio information from the scene. However, the human brain, working through the lens of the human eye, is highly likely to perceive some things differently during stressful situations than a camera records them.
“MN criminal defense attorney Geoff Saltzstein believes that the credibility of evidence is, in fact, enhanced by increased objectivity. “It’s not too often that we, as the public, get actual footage of alleged police brutality. I would argue that, contrary to the belief of the Police Federation, video footage of the actual incident is more credible than the “he said/she said” story of a human in a badge. It is plain to see, though, that the suspect here is under control and poses no danger to the police or others. The absolute brutality of this arrest is reprehensible, and it will be interesting to see if there are criminal assault charges that stem from kicking a handcuffed, defenseless suspect. Police officers are supposed to be role models for society, and especially our children. What I see here is nothing more than a thug in a uniform.”