The news conference ended abruptly, with Nagin and Compass quickly parting and leaving through separate exits. In response to a shouted question about whether he asked for Compass’ resignation, Nagin said, “No.” The mayor also declined to elaborate in an email Tuesday afternoon.
“No comment,” Nagin wrote. “The chief asks everyone to respect his privacy. He requested the press conference be held the way it was handled. He is a good man. Don’t mess with him!”
But several sources said the sudden retirement came after a private meeting between Compass, 47, and the mayor not long before the announcement.
The announcement came two days after several comments Compass had made repeatedly about the alleged violence that had engulfed emergency shelters at the Superdome and Ernest N.Morial Convention Center were countered by others to be hyperbolic and based on faulty intelligence.
Compass had come under fire for a variety of other reasons after Katrina. At first, he seemed invisible, holed up in the Hyatt Hotel with Nagin and other city leaders. As anarchy threatened to overwhelm the city, cops on the street said they “had no chief.”
Widespread looting, some of it conducted by police officers, branded New Orleans worldwide as lawless, and almost 249 officers left their posts without permission.
After that first week, however, Compass became a seemingly omnipresent fixture in media accounts, and was feted by broadcast news stars. After the crisis was in full swing, Compass was a virtual quote machine, offering a down-home mix of empathy and bravado.
“I’m still standing. I’m the ultimate warrior,” Compass was quoted two weeks after the storm. “I’m going to be the last person to leave the battlefield.”
While his tearful interviews made him a compelling local face of the horrors of the storm, his decision to leave the city and flip the coin at a New Orleans Saints game in Giants Stadium on Monday Night Football on Sept. 19 was criticized by some of his rank and file.
Then, on Friday, Nagin’s press office issued an unusually tart news release that rescinded statements Compass had made to media outlets about taking guns from residents coming back to New Orleans, comments that prompted a lawsuit from the National Rifle Association. What’s more, Nagin’s staff made clear, Compass’ statements “were made without the knowledge or the approval of the mayor.”
After Tuesday’s news conference, as the brass got into their tinted-window SUVs and rolled away, Riley, a favorite at City Hall whom Nagin supported in an unsuccessful bid for criminal sheriff last year, eluded a question about whether he has been tapped as a replacement.
But just a few minutes after Compass quit, Riley leaned up against the hood of a black SUV, next to department spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo, smiling and talking into a cell phone. As he hung up, another colleague walked up to him and slapped his hand.
“Congratulations, bro!” the officer said. Riley smiled and thanked him.
In less than an hour, Nagin’s office released a statement announcing Riley’s appointment as acting chief.
The new head of the department declined any comment on his ascension to power or his boss’s exit, but said he would address the topic today at an 11 a.m. news conference.
Top brass and patrol officers were jolted by the news.
“It was a little shocking,” said Capt. Kevin Anderson, commander of the 8th District. “There was no indication earlier, but I’m sure he had his reasons. I can tell you this much: This has been the most trying incident anyone could go through in their lifetime,” referring to Katrina.
Anderson praised Compass as an “outstanding” superintendent, who had been “a friend to me and a friend to the entire city.”
Several district captains said they heard about Compass’ sudden retirement through the media or by telephone as the news rippled through the department. They said they were surprised that Compass didn’t follow the typical protocol of informing his officers before any public announcement.
“I’m extremely surprised by this, but these have been surprising times,” said Police Association of New Orleans President David Benelli.
Two captains said they met with the chief Monday and nothing seemed amiss.
Capt. Timothy Bayard, the vice and narcotics chief who has commanded boat rescues since Katrina, said the timing of Compass’ retirement was unfortunate, whether it was voluntary or forced.
“The timing is not good, man, not good at all,” Bayard said. “We’re in the middle of a crisis and now this? He was driving the ship. I have a lot of young officers with their heads cocked sideways, looking to someone for leadership, wondering which way they’re going. It’s going to have a trickle-down effect and it’s not the right trickle-down effect.”
Compass is the latest in a series of high-profile members of the Nagin administration to resign during the mayor’s first term. Those who preceded him out the door included two chief administrative officers, an intergovernmental aide, the economic development director and a communications director.
Benelli heaped praise on a man he considered both a boss and a friend.
“The men and women of this department had a real friend in Eddie Compass. He was a cop’s cop. He rose through the ranks and he experienced the department at every level,” Benelli said. “He was the one who really brought the family tradition back to the New Orleans Police Department. He represented the spirit of this department and during the darkest hours of the hurricane, it was the spirit of the men and women of this department that kept this city afloat.”
Other city politicians were also taken aback by the news.
“This is a big loss. He gave a damn,” City Council President Oliver Thomas said. Thomas declined to speculate on whether Compass’ handling of the Katrina crisis precipitated his departure.
“I have not had time to rate his performance,” he said. “All I know is he managed to keep together as much of his department as possible.”
Council member Jackie Clarkson said she, too, had no clue this was coming, and praised Compass for “the masterful job the police did in the saving of so many citizens of New Orleans.”
On the choice of a permanent successor for Compass, Benelli said his only preference is someone from within the department.
“The next chief should be someone within the ranks of the NOPD. No outsider need apply,” Benelli said. “If it’s Chief (Warren) Riley or any of the deputy chiefs, I’m sure they’d serve the city well.”
Staff writers Martha Carr, Meghan Gordon, Trymaine Lee, David Meeks, Bruce Nolan and Gordon Russell contributed to this report.