NAACP, church leaders denounce St. Paul police actions

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2012 - 9:44 PM

Several community members spoke out Saturday against a St. Paul police officer kicking a man he was arresting last week.

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The St. Paul Police Department is investigating after a video posted Wednesday on YouTube.com showed an officer kicking a man.

Photo: ., Courtesy YouTube.com

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After years of building police-community relations, St. Paul community leaders said Saturday that dozens of residents now fear police after an officer was videotaped kicking a man under arrest.

Denouncing the officer's actions, St. Paul NAACP President Jeffry Martin called on the community to "fight back" by reporting police brutality to show that Eric Hightower's case isn't isolated.

"I know our community is disturbed by this. ... They are set back by what they see in that video," Martin said.

Standing Saturday just a few yards from where his arrest was captured and posted to YouTube, Hightower pointed out chemical-irritant burns on his face and chin as well as swelling on his chest from the officer who "kicked me like kicking a door down," he said.

Officer Jesse Zilge was put on administrative leave in connection with the arrest; a second officer, Matthew Gorans, also was put on leave, the Associated Press reported.

Hightower, 30, is accused of threatening to hurt or kill his ex-girlfriend. On Thursday, he was charged in Ramsey County District Court with aggravated stalking, terroristic threats and property damage.

While the five community and church leaders who spoke Saturday said they don't condone domestic violence or Hightower's criminal record -- he'll be sentenced Sept. 14 for separate felony assault and drug possession cases -- they added that it doesn't justify an officer using "street justice."

"If that video hadn't been taken, would we even know Eric Hightower's name?" Martin said.

After Hightower was released from jail on bond on Thursday, his attorney, Seamus Mahoney, said he was treated at a hospital. He plans to file a civil lawsuit against the police and has set up a site, www.justiceforhightower.com seeking donations.

"It was really outrageous behavior and inexcusable," Mahoney said. "This happens in the poor, black communities more than we think."

That's why the community leaders encouraged residents to come forward. A 24-hour NAACP hot line was set up at 612-615-9344.

Pastor Darryl Spence said the incident hasn't just invoked fear but also has strained local police-community relations.

"We erased a whole lot of history," he said. "We now have to rebuild bridges that we thought were firm."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141 Twitter: @kellystrib

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