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(MintPress) — Around 6 p.m. Wednesday evening, 30-year-old St. Paul, Minn. resident Eric Ronnell Hightower was on his way to a nearby park with his friend, when he says a St. Paul police officer approached him and fired a chemical irritant in his eyes.
“He never asked me, ‘What’s my name?’ He never asked me for my ID or nothing,” said Hightower in a press conference from the Ramsey County Jail. “He said, ‘Everybody on the ground.’ We all stopped and were like, ‘What’s going on? Why?’” Hightower said the officer, later identified as Jesse Zilge, singled him out and told him to get down and started spraying a chemical irritant, but didn’t explain anything to Hightower.
Unfortunately for Hightower, the chemical irritant wasn’t the only “special treatment” he received from the police that night. A friend of Hightower’s recorded the brutal tactics which included Zilge kicking Hightower while he was on the ground, slamming a handcuffed Hightower onto the hood of a squad car and pulling his hair.
“[Zilge] just kept telling me, ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up.’ My friend and my sister were telling me, ‘Just turn over, just turn over. We don’t want him to do nothing to you. We’re recording everything.’ I was like, ‘First, I want to know what I’m turning over for, you know what I’m saying?’ He’s got to at least tell me something.”
Hours after the video went viral, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith told local media that he called for an expedited internal affairs investigation into the incident, saying the video “raised some serious concerns about the use of force of one of my officers.”
Smith was not aware of how long Zilge had been with the department or his personnel record, including previous disciplinary actions. Zilge has been placed on leave while an investigation into the incident takes place.
According to the St. Paul Police Department, Hightower allegedly threatened to kill an acquaintance, which is why police were looking for him. Hightower was arrested on suspicion of making terroristic threats, obstructing legal process and criminal damage to property. On Thursday, Hightower was charged with stalking and making terroristic threats specifically to his girlfriend, whom he had previously assaulted.
But the most recent accusations toward Hightower should not have been an invitation for the St. Paul Police Department to assault him. Describing what it was like when Zilge kicked him, Hightower likened the experience to someone kicking a football. “I was laying on my side, I was hocking up the [Mace], it was choking me and he ran toward me, kicked me in the chest, kicked me in the chin. … He kicked me so hard, he knocked the wind completely out of me.”
Hightower said the officer also grabbed him by his hair and when officers tried to put Hightower in the squad car head-first, he said the initial officer who stopped him kept spraying him with chemical irritant. “He held my head down and Maced me in the right ear,” Hightower said.
Since Hightower was arrested near a park where there were young children attending a birthday party, many people watched and recorded the incident on their cell phones. Aware of all of the attention, Hightower said the officer kept saying, “Hurry up, let’s get him out of here, let’s get him out of here, let’s get him going.”
News of this specific incidence of police brutality from the St. Paul Police Department got the attention of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. In a written statement, Coleman said, “I grew up in St. Paul having full confidence in the St. Paul Police Department. I have high expectations for the department and its employees. We will fully investigate and take appropriate action.”
Stories of police officers from the St. Paul Police Department, like Hightower’s, aren’t as unusual as residents would hope. In July the police department, along with the Dakota County drug task force, broke down the doors of a St. Paul home, shot and killed the family dog and forced the handcuffed children to sit next to dead-Fido for over an hour as they continued to search the home, even after realizing they were in the wrong home.
In 2010, Anthony Clark Jr. of Maplewood, Minn. sued the department for $400,000 saying the officers used excessive force against him. Clark says officers sprayed him with a chemical irritant and hit him with flashlights, resulting in Clark needing 20 staples in his head, a bruised chest and peeling skin on his face.
When officers put on a badge and carry around various weapons, the standards they are held to should be higher than the Average Joe. Police are to protect and serve, and if the incidents of police brutality dominate the conversation over tales of good-works, it may be time to reevaluate the function of police departments.