A longtime New Orleans police officer was suspended without pay on Wednesday, accused of neglect of duty and failure to perform his duty, after a video on the Internet showed him standing by as two women beat each other during a brawl on Canal Street.
“No one — no one — can watch this two-plus-minute film and believe that Officer (Cortez) Hankton did all that he could ... to stop two citizens from pummeling one another,” Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said.
An attorney for Hankton, however, said the suspension was a “knee-jerk” reaction from the department. He blamed a federal court consent decree against the Police Department for any perceived lack of action by the officer.
Hankton, who has been on the force for 28 years, works in the department’s recruitment division.
The video, recorded in the 1000 block of Canal Street, was posted to YouTube on Sept. 8. Serpas said he was not sure when the fight happened but thought it was the same day the video was uploaded.
The nearly three-minute video begins with two men punching each other as another officer tries to break them apart, even as one of the men puts a hand on the officer’s neck.
Moments later, the video shows two women in a separate fight a few feet away, punching each other and pulling each other’s hair. Hankton stands a few feet from the women, who continue their scuffle after they shove each other against a picture window, but does not try to separate them,
The video does show him use his radio a number of times. Raymond Burkart III, Hankton’s attorney, said the officer was calling for backup.
Hankton takes action only after one of the men in the other fight walks up and slugs each woman in the face twice.
Moments later two female officers arrive on the scene and break up the brawl. Hankton is then seen handcuffing one of the men involved in the fight.
Burkart said Hankton did his best to contain the two women until help arrived but was hesitant to break up the fight for fear of being accused of using too much force.
The consent decree mandating reforms in the Police Department says NOPD officers have a history of using excessive force when responding to calls.
“What do you think he’s on the radio doing: ordering a pizza?” Burkart said. “That’s your manpower issue. They were outnumbered.”
Burkart also said Hankton was waiting for female officers to arrive because he did not want to use force against women.
“That’s about the most ridiculous and stupid thing I’ve heard,” Serpas said, noting that only about 15 to 20 percent of the city’s police officers are female.
“All police officers are trained to break up fights. Every police officer has a responsibility to stop people from hurting each other. That’s the bottom line.”
Ultimately, Serpas said, Hankton did not fulfill his duties as a law enforcement officer.
“I have lost confidence at this time in his ability to perform the duties necessary to protect the people of New Orleans and to protect fellow officers,” the superintendent said.
“I hope the people of New Orleans recognize every other officer on that scene involved themselves immediately. They followed their police training. ... They simply did not just stand and watch and talk on their radio for a few seconds.”
Hankton served a two-day suspension in January 2001 for violating a department policy, according to Civil Service records. Details about that suspension were not immediately available Wednesday.
He has no other suspensions on file.
Burkart said the emergency suspension ordered by Serpas was an overreaction and that such an action should be taken only when officers illegally discharge their weapons or are arrested.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s a ‘ready, shoot, aim’ type of reaction,” Burkart said. “He is in no way, shape or form of danger to the public. These officers were doing the best they could.”
Serpas could not immediately say if any of the men or women in the video were arrested.
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