Tony Jerome Mitchell said he was forced to make a choice: his grandmother or his honor as a police officer.
Mitchell, a nine-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, is listed as one of nearly 400 police missing from their posts after Hurricane Katrina. That absentee record, from a force of 1,750, has wounded the pride of a department already struggling with a storm that nearly snuffed out the city.
Police Superintendent P. Edwin Compass III said he does not know why so many police officers remain missing. Some may have died or still cannot reach their stations, he suggested Monday. Other cops are less generous; cowards, they say.
The words sting Mitchell, 35. He spent six days trying to patrol the hellhole of the Louisiana Superdome evacuation center after the storm, he said, while he was worried sick about his family.
After the evacuees left the Superdome and he heard his mother, 76, and grandmother, 103, were in a hospital, he hurried to retrieve them and move them to a relative's home.
While he was doing that, his supervisor called his cell phone. "He told me it was very noble and honorable to take care of my grandmother, but if I was not at roll call in 10 minutes, I was fired."
Mitchell said he struggled to get back to the police station, but when he arrived, "he told me to go home. He said, 'We don't need your service.' He said as far as he was concerned, I was fired." Until charges are formally brought, he is back on the force but relegated to handing out used clothes to fellow officers still working round the clock.
Departmental charges against Mitchell and any other absent police officers will be taken up after the department regroups, said Capt. Marlon Defillo, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department. "I don't want to speculate what will happen to him. There won't be a broad-brush approach," Defillo said. "Once this whole crisis is over, we will have an opportunity to evaluate each one on a case-by-case basis."
Mitchell said even if he is not dismissed, the blot on his record will likely affect his career. He said he has no regrets.
"I love being a policeman. But my grandmother and my mother are the only family I've got. And I'm the only family they've got," he said, talking to a reporter in the hot sun of the donated clothing center.
"They raised me, made sure I stayed out of trouble and had clean clothes on my back," he said of his grandmother and mother. "I owe my life to them. I owe them."
Mitchell is hurt and angry that his superiors do not recognize the personal conflicts for officers whose families are hurricane victims. It is that conflict, his story suggests, that may explain why some of the police are missing.
"I love being on the street. But my family comes first. I'm trying to do whatever I can to make my grandmother's last days comfortable. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do everything I could.
"But I never thought I'd have to choose between my grandmother and my job," he said.