Around 6 p.m. on Tuesday evening, Eric Hightower was walking with friends to Lewis Park in St. Paul's North End. Near the intersection of Woodbridge and Milford streets, he was approached by an officer in a squad car. The officer, exiting his squad, demanded that Hightower and his buddies hit the ground.
"We all stopped and were like, 'What's going on? Why?'" Hightower told the Pioneer Press. Next thing he knew, he had been sprayed in the face with a chemical irritant, apparently for no reason. Then, while Hightower was lying on the sidewalk, the officer -- later identified as Jesse Zilge -- kicked him under the chin and continued to douse his face with mace.
[jump] The incident was caught on cell phone camera by one of Hightower's friends. Here's the footage:
As video of the brutal arrest scene circulated yesterday, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith held a press conference to announce that Zilge has been placed on paid administrative leave while an expedited internal affairs investigation takes place. Smith said the video raises "some serious concerns about the use of force of one of my officers."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman echoed Smith in a statement.
"I grew up in St. Paul having full confidence in the St. Paul Police Department," Coleman said. "I have high expectations for the department and its employees. We will fully investigate and take appropriate action."
But St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus insists there was more to the incident than what can be seen in the video and took umbrage at Smith and Coleman leaping to conclusions.
"This cop was dealing with a very dangerous individual in a very dangerous situation," Titus told the PiPress. "Back-up was not immediately available. And maybe our officials shouldn't make comments about their concern until the investigation has run its course."
"This is a good cop," Titus said, adding that more details would emerge during the course of the police department's investigation.
Hightower, 30, was arrested on suspicion of making terroristic threats, obstructing legal process, and criminal damage to property. According to St. Paul police spokesman Howie Padilla, before the brutality incident, police received a tip that Hightower had threatened to kill an acquaintance. He hasn't yet been charged with a crime.
Hightower says he was also mistreated in jail, where he was left suffering with impaired hearing, bloodshot eyes, irritated skin, and no pants (police, for some reason, took them, leaving him in boxers). He told the PiPress he banged on a holding cell's door, repeatedly asking, "Please, can someone help me?" until nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Later in the day yesterday, Hightower was still feeling the effects of Zilge's beatdown.
"I can't even hear anything out of my right ear," he told the PiPress. "My whole right side of my face is completely numb, my skin is irritated."