ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA – A St. Paul police officer captured on video kicking a suspect who was lying on the ground during an arrest remained on paid leave Thursday, while an attorney for the suspect said his client was complaining of headaches and ear pain.
Officer Jesse Zilge and other officers are subject of an internal investigation as police try to sort out events surrounding Tuesday night’s arrest of Eric Hightower, who is accused of threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend.
Video of the arrest shows Zilge kicking Hightower once in the chest as Hightower was lying on the ground and coughing _ after he had been sprayed with a chemical irritant.
Zilge then handcuffs Hightower, drags him onto his feet and, with the assistance of another officer, slams Hightower’s head onto the hood of a squad car. A crowd of onlookers heckles the officers as more police arrive, and Hightower is eventually put into a squad car and driven away.
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, which was recorded by a citizen and posted to YouTube on Wednesday.
Police Chief Thomas Smith ordered an internal investigation, saying he wanted to find out what happened before, during and after the arrest.
“The video of a St. Paul police officer striking a suspect raises serious questions about the conduct of the officer,” Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement. “I have high expectations for the department and its employees. We will fully investigate and take appropriate action.”
While several officers appear in the video, Zilge was the only one placed on paid administrative leave. A phone listing for a Jesse Zilge was disconnected.
St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus said in a statement that the video doesn’t show the entire context of what happened or “how the officer perceived the threat at hand.”
Titus encouraged the public and community leaders to let the facts emerge before rushing to judgment. He said once the investigation is complete, “we believe the facts will show that a good cop was in a dangerous situation with a known dangerous individual.”
According to police records, Zilge joined the department in 2008 and has one disciplinary action in his file _ an oral reprimand for improper procedure in 2009. Files made public Thursday didn’t include details of what led to the reprimand.
Zilge’s file also included seven commendations, including two letters of recognition this year from Smith. Details on those also were not available.
Hightower was charged Thursday with stalking, making terroristic threats and criminal damage to property.
According to the criminal complaint, Hightower’s ex-girlfriend called authorities Tuesday and said Hightower had been harassing and threatening her over four days. The woman told police she feared Hightower, and that he had assaulted and choked her before.
According to the complaint, Hightower admitted that he called his ex-girlfriend and threatened she’d get her “head blown off” but said he only meant to scare her.
During his first appearance in Ramsey County District Court on Thursday, Hightower’s bail was set at $35,000 and he was ordered to have no contact with the woman.
Attorney Susan Johnson, who represented Hightower in court, said Hightower needs medical care for injuries he suffered during his arrest.
Hightower’s attorney going forward, Seamus Mahoney, said Hightower will plead not guilty.
Mahoney said Hightower was complaining of ear pain, saying an officer sprayed a chemical irritant into his ear as he was being put into the squad car. He was also suffering from headaches and had swelling on his upper sternum, where he was kicked, Mahoney said.
“As the video shows, he was punched in the side of the face by the cop, who bounced his head off the fender of the car,” Mahoney said. “As he was thrown in the squad car, apparently an officer Maced him again.”
Hightower has a criminal record that includes 2007 convictions for petty theft and violating a protection order. This June he pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor of obstruction of justice and interfering with a peace officer. He also is awaiting sentencing on a count of third-degree assault for an August 2011 incident in which he punched a man in the face, knocking out his two front teeth.
Talking from jail, Hightower told the Pioneer Press he and his friends were on their way to a park when an officer jumped out of a squad car and ordered everyone onto the ground. The officer singled out Hightower and began spraying him with a chemical, he said.
While on the ground, Hightower said, he continued to ask the officer why he was being arrested, but the officer wouldn’t say.
“He sprayed me in my face again. I was laying on my side. I was hocking up the stuff, it was choking me and he ran towards me, kicked me in the chest, kicked me in the chin,” Hightower said.