New Orleans Police Had to Choose: Katrina or Kin
Updated: February 21st, 2006 11:04 AM EDT
NEW ORLEANS -- In 30 years as a cop, Paul Schubert says, he was called a lot of things -- but never a coward.
In January, however, Schubert was fired by the New Orleans Police Department for leaving his job just before Hurricane Katrina hit last August, and then not returning for four weeks. Like scores of city officers who abandoned their posts, he was cast as a deserter.
Schubert, 54, says he fled to Texas to save his disabled wife, Madeline O'Neill, who needed a doctor's care and medicine for her rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and poor eyesight. Schubert says he got permission from a supervisor to evacuate her -- which the police department does not dispute -- and that he figured he'd be back in a day or so. What followed was a month-long odyssey in which the couple searched repeatedly for accommodations, a new doctor and medicine before Schubert returned to work Sept. 24.
"I couldn't just abandon her in a hotel room," Schubert says. "I would have been signing her death warrant."
Schubert is among more than 200 New Orleans officers who have been under investigation by the police department for leaving their posts during the hurricane crisis. Since the fall, the officers have been appearing, one at a time, in often emotional hearings in which many of them have pleaded for their jobs before a review panel at the department's temporary headquarters in a hotel on Bourbon Street.
The hearings are closed to the public, and the department does not comment on individual cases. However, interviews with Schubert and other police officers, along with new details about the proceedings provided to USA TODAY by the head of the police union, shed light on the wrenching moral choices that some officers faced. They also offer a hint of the hard line that Police Superintendent Warren Riley is taking in deciding whether to allow deserting officers back on the force at a time when he is focused on repairing the department's battered image.
Five days after a hearing in which the police panel ruled that Schubert should be allowed to keep his $44,600-a-year job, Riley vetoed the decision.
Schubert's police career in New Orleans was over. A letter from the department told Schubert that his actions were an unforgivable "neglect of duty."
Riley declined to comment on Schubert's case, but in an interview with USA TODAY he said the department is better off without most of those who fled: "They couldn't be counted on, anyway."
Within the department, Schubert's case has come to represent the no-win situation that many officers faced when family and police obligations collided, says David Benelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, which represents about 1,100 of the department's 1,400 officers.
Benelli says he has attended about 40 of the police panel's hearings, and he says there have been very few cases involving officers who fled New Orleans merely out of cowardice.
Nearly all of the cases, Benelli says, have involved officers who left because of "family issues."
He offers no opinion on Schubert's case, but says, "You know, if every single officer said he had to take care of family, there would be no one left on this job. This is not a normal job. Police officers take an oath. They are supposed to stay."
Benelli adds that some of the post-Katrina security problems in New Orleans stemmed from the police department not having enough officers available.
"I spent a year in Vietnam," he says. "But the week I spent in the Superdome (in squalid conditions with limited security) was worse than my entire year in Vietnam."
Riley acknowledges that one of his biggest challenges in remaking New Orleans' police department is changing its image as a unit that collapsed when confronted by Katrina.
That image was fostered by former police superintendent Eddie Compass' estimate, shortly after the hurricane hit, that 500 officers -- roughly one-third of the police force -- had abandoned their posts.
Riley, who was appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin when Compass resigned a month after the hurricane, has said that the actual number of deserters was less than half what Compass estimated.
The latest police department statistics reflect that:
*Seventy-six officers have been fired for abandoning their jobs during the crisis.
*At least 11 have been fired for neglecting their duties.
*An additional 41 have resigned while under investigation for a range of alleged misconduct related to the storm, including neglect of duty.
*An undisclosed number of officers have been suspended for up to 120 days for misconduct during the hurricane crisis.
*Roughly 65 officers initially accused of misconduct have been cleared of wrongdoing.
At the end of January, the police review panel was still reviewing the conduct of about 30 officers.
"There was never, ever information to support that 500 officers had abandoned their posts," says Riley, noting that an estimated 80 officers whom Compass had counted as deserters were among the thousands of New Orleans residents who were rescued from rooftops.
"But the world has heard these things," he says. "It has heard that the NOPD is a chaotic department. I am severely concerned about the kind of image that projects."
Housing search becomes ordeal
As Katrina churned in the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 27, Schubert recalls, he thought he had plenty of time to move his wife out of harm's way and get back to his post at the department's 8th District house in the French Quarter before the storm hit.
That day, Schubert says, he received permission from his commanders to evacuate O'Neill, 61, to a relative's house in Conroe, Texas, just north of Houston.
"I told my lieutenant that I was coming back by the next day," Schubert says.
When the couple arrived in Conroe, however, the relative's house was already full of evacuees, many of them ill, Schubert says. That led Schubert and his wife to look elsewhere for shelter.
The couple's search for a place where O'Neill could receive care led them on a tour of small towns throughout the Houston area.
In Tomball, Texas, they checked into a hotel and saw TV reports on the desperate situation unfolding in New Orleans.
Schubert says he updated his supervisors at least three times during the ordeal, and that each time he was told to take care of his family and return to work as soon as he could.
As Hurricane Rita headed toward the Houston area, the couple returned to the outskirts of New Orleans.
On Sept. 23, Schubert says, they took up residence in a home they own in heavily damaged Jefferson Parish. Schubert says they didn't return sooner because electricity and medical care were spotty in the parish.
Schubert says he reported to work the next day and was placed on a 30-day suspension without pay because of his absence.
In late October, Schubert says, colleagues in the 8th District welcomed him back to work. He says many of his colleagues had long been aware of his wife's medical problems because she had been a civilian employee in the police department for more than two decades before her declining health forced her to leave.
Police officials would not allow Schubert's supervisors to discuss his case.
However, Benelli, the union president, says the police review panel did not seriously challenge Schubert's version of events and that "there was never any question he was being upfront with them.
"He's an honest guy," says Benelli, adding that Schubert had never been disciplined in three decades on the job.
"It tore me up inside not to be here during the storm," Schubert says.
New uniforms, new era for police
Riley says the review panel is part of an internal investigation of the department that he hopes will help restore credibility to its "seriously tarnished" image.
Besides dealing with deserters, Riley says he dismissed two officers and suspended another because of their involvement in the beating of a man in the French Quarter in October.
Two officers were dismissed after they were charged with stealing cars while New Orleans was being looted during the flooding, and several more officers accused of looting were among those who left the force while they were under investigation, according to the police department.
Riley has pledged to improve the department by addressing a range of issues, from courtesy in dealing with the public to ensuring integrity and "courage" under fire.
The superintendent says he has established a new office that will measure officers' performance.
New, dark-blue uniforms are being introduced this month, Riley says, in part because of security concerns stemming from the theft of 200 police uniforms last year.
Riley says that replacing the department's powder-blue shirts also will symbolize the beginning of a new era, and he suggests that more turnover on the force is coming.
"We do not want to be known as an unprofessional police department," he says. "In the next six months, we'll review our progress and there will probably be more casualties."
'Fighting for your career'
So far, the primary symbol of Riley's new order has been the police review panel's hearings at the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
Every week, Benelli says, officers accused of desertion and other types of misconduct during the flooding have come to the hotel to "fight for their professional lives" in hearings before two deputy police superintendents.
"You are fighting for your career up there," Benelli says. "You are fighting for your name."
That's a hint of what Schubert believes he lost when he was fired -- along with what he estimates was about $60,000 in accumulated sick leave and vacation time.
Schubert remains angry about how he was treated and says he plans to appeal his dismissal to a civil service review board.
He expects to be able to retain his pension, "but this is not the way I wanted to go out," Schubert says.
"It all comes down to the fact that I had to make a decision" between his job as a public servant or his wife, he says, blinking back tears.
"I chose my wife," Schubert says. "It was a no-brainer."
He made the right decision, and the NOLA chief is a jackass. I would have stood up and told him at the end of the conference that he would be a jackass if he fired me because I took care of my wife (if she was in the same condition). I would have retired my ass, and told him that the mere fact that I was at the hearing is an abomination. I have always held this philosiphy.
1. Family first, always and forever
2. Job second.
Anyone who says differently (cept for religion) can kiss my ass.
I'd support the entire NOLA police department giving that guy the finger and quitting, which is what they should do......that chief is a jackass.
I concur, you can always get another job.
In my opinion their punishing people who've made moral, and in my opinion appropriate choices. Maybe there looking for people they can count on if there's ever a problem "with the people"...(Wink wink, nudge nudge)
He did the right thing. Fuck the people of NOLA. That's my honest opinion.
Shitty decision to have to make, but I think he did the right thing. Maybe there wouldn't have been the problems in NO if more of the people had.......... Never mind, we've all been over this before.
I hope he lands on his feet. With 30 years on the job, I would think that if nothing else, he should be able to retire.
Yeah, I notice the invisible cops thing is being conveniently forgotten.
That can't possibly go on without a lot of the "upper management" being involved.
How about if some of Clinton's federal money (100,000 cops on the streets) was used to pay for those invisible cops? Would that bring in some federal investigation? I would truly love to see some prison time for those involved.
What Riley wants to show is that he is tough and is going to straighten everyone else out. What he really is showing is that the problems run from the top down.
Shubert should go be a small town police chief in a nice quiet corner of the world somewhere.
I agree. It was the leadership that screwed up, not the officers. Family first, always.
He probably should not have been fired. In the end he made the right call. He'll find another job, life will go on. He can feel good knowing he's a better man than the one that fired him.
yep the police will protect you
Not bagging on those cops
between bugging out family and controlling the hoodrats in SHTF
I know what i would choose
this did open up alot of people eyes to self sufficency
FOX news was running a story today about how gun sales are though the roof still in that area of the world
He took an oath to his wife as well, and that one was before God. Good for the cop in honoring that obligation, and to hell with the NOLA leadership. Anyone with a position of authority in NOLA needs to be culled, from the Mayor down.