Eric Hightower: Cop discipline cut to 1-day suspension in YouTube case

In a squad car video, a St. Paul police officer Matthew Gorans is shown pepper-spraying Eric Hightower in the ear during his arrest. (Screen grab fromTwin Cities – by Mara H. Gottfried

Squad car video released by St. Paul police shows what happened in the back of a squad on Aug. 28, 2012, during the arrest of Eric Hightower. The audio starts at the 30-second mark. Officer Matthew Gorans is seen entering the back of the squad car at the 54-second mark. Gorans sprays Hightower with pepper spray at the 1 minute, 10 second mark. Soon after, the drive to the jail begins, with Hightower screaming during the drive. Hightower gets out of the squad at the jail at the eight-minute mark. This video contains strong language.  

An arbitrator ruled Monday that a St. Paul police officer did not use excessive force and should be reinstated after he was fired following his role in an arrest captured on video put on YouTube.

Officer Matthew Gorans was not seen in the YouTube video of Eric Hightower’s August 2012 arrest, in which another officer kicked High-tower, though Gorans’ actions were recorded on a squad car video.

The St. Paul Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission found that Gorans intentionally pepper-sprayed Hightower in his ear during the arrest, but state arbitrator Harley Ogata disagreed.

He also found Gorans justified in pulling Hightower into a squad car by his hair as the man resisted officers’ attempts to get him into the vehicle.

Ogata ruled that Gorans should be suspended for one day for not filing a complete police report.

“The arbitration decision confirms that officers were dealing with a volatile and rapidly developing situation involving a known dangerous individual with a history of violence, and of resisting and evading arrest,” Chris Wachtler, St. Paul Police Federation attorney, said in a statement Monday.

“The state-appointed, neutral arbitrator in this case heard the testimony of 20 witnesses over the course of three days, thoroughly and completely reviewed the evidence, and reached the correct decision.”

Police Chief Thomas Smith said Monday afternoon he hadn’t had a chance to review the findings.

“Obviously, I have to respect the process and live with the arbitrator’s decision,” he said.

The arbitration is binding on both parties, and the city cannot appeal, said City Attorney Sara Grewing.

Hightower’s attorney, Seamus Mahoney, said Monday that he planned to sue over his client’s arrest. And an FBI spokesman said the agency has been looking into possible civil rights violations in the case.

During the arbitration hearing, Ogata wrote, Smith “argued that incidents of this type degrade the fragile public trust between law enforcement and the community at large.

Eric Ronnell Hightower  (Ramsey County sheriff’s office)

“He fired the grievant. It should be noted that had the city proved that the grievant had intentionally sprayed Hightower in the ear, a discharge might have been sustained here.”

Ogata also wrote that he believes Gorans “used a level of force with Hightower that was lower on the (police) use of force continuum. He escalated the use of force to the next least harmful level, which is the use of ASR (aerosol subject restraint). He did not strike Hightower in any fashion.”

Police were arresting High tower on Aug. 28, 2012, after he allegedly threatened to kill an ex-girlfriend. He was later convicted of gross misdemeanor domestic assault.

St. Paul police officer Jesse Zilge located Hightower, told him he was under arrest and to lie on the ground with his hands behind his back, but Hightower refused, according to the city’s description of the case, quoted in the arbitration decision.

Zilge pepper-sprayed Hightower and then radioed for help, the description said.

“Officer Zilge was finally able to get Mr. Hightower to the ground,” the description said. About this point, a man started a recording that evenutally was posted on YouTube. The recording shows Zilge kicking Hightower on the ground and using other force.

Gorans arrived after this and helped get Hightower into the back of the car.

Prosecutors reviewed the case and decided against charging Gorans or Zilge.

The city referred the case to the police review commission, which examined three allegations against Gorans. The first was whether he used excessive force in Hightower’s arrest, focusing on Gorans pulling Hightower into the car by his hair. The commission sustained the allegation by a 5-2 vote, Ogata wrote.

On the second allegation about Gorans’ use of pepper spray, the commission determined unanimously that he deliberately sprayed it in Hightower’s ear, Ogata wrote.

The third allegation was “Gorans did not follow proper procedure because he failed to document his (hair-pulling) use of force in his report,” Ogata wrote, and the commission sustained the allegation by a 4-3 vote.

The commission recommended Gorans be suspended for 10 days. In June, the police chief overruled the recommendation and fired him.

The police union appealed, and the arbitration decision was the end result.

Ogata wrote that the commission “is presented evidence solely from the perspective of the Internal Affairs unit,” which “did not seek a use-of-force trainer’s opinion as part of its investigation.”

At the arbitration hearing, four St. Paul police officers who are use-of-force experts testified — two for the union and two for the city.

Three “testified that pulling a suspect by the hair in an attempt to restrain is within the confines of the city’s use-of-force policies,” Ogata wrote.

Ogata determined that Gorans was justified in pulling Hightower’s hair.

Three experts testified the pepper-spray use “was appropriate, but not if it was aimed directly into the ear as alleged,” Ogata wrote.

Ogata wrote that Gorans “unequivocally states that he was not aiming for the ear and tries to explain that Hightower was not cooperating and was squirming around and he was trying to control him and spray the ASR at the same time.”

Ogata viewed the squad car video and still photos from the video more than 20 times and wrote, “it becomes clear that what might first appear to be spraying in the ear, was not in the ear at all, at least for the large percentage of spraying.”

He found “the spray was pointed below the ear.”

Regarding Gorans’ late filing of the police report about the case, Ogata wrote that he found no cover-up intent.

Ogata wrote that Gorans should be suspended for one day for “failing to file a complete and documented report” and then reinstated with full back pay.

Sources have said that Smith suspended Zilge for 30 days, but the union is grieving it. An arbitrator has been selected, with no hearing date scheduled, the union’s attorney said.


Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262. Follow her at

One thought on “Eric Hightower: Cop discipline cut to 1-day suspension in YouTube case

  1. This pig also drives squad car “1913” in St. Paul – at least he did anyway. I have heard that this zigler pig is known for use of excessive force….. Here is another name Bernard Zapor who is a special agent in charge of the ATF and Explosives div. in St.Paul. Another corrupt pig….I have always said that is is good to know the cops names and addressesjust in case ya need to contact them for any reason- seeing as to how they are our public servants like they like to say 😆 , yea some public servants if ya al know what I`m sayin` hint hint 😉 😎

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