Eddie Compass resigned as Chief of Police for the City of New Orleans. Some reports used the word “shocking” to describe the news, however seeing all that Mr. Compass has gone through in the past four weeks, I can’t say it’s all that shocking. He’s seen the city in which he resides devastated by Hurricane Katrina and flooded by breached levees. He’s had at least one officer under his command commit suicide due to the stress after Katrina. He’s had many police officers leave their posts (250 to 300 depending upon what report is read) when they should have been on duty. He’s been taking flak from just about everywhere. Plus he’s been under intense scrutiny all along. His sudden resignation has raised questions of whether Mayor Ray Nagin forced Compass from his job. Right now, Eddie Compass isn’t saying much. I hope he will take the opportunity at some point in the future to give a candid account of his side of the story. I for one would be very interested in hearing what he went through.
Overall, I believe the majority of the New Orleans police department is made up of good, honest cops, but historically speaking the NOPD has a very checkered past. For example, in 1994 several New Orleans police officer were exposed by the FBI and subsequently convicted of murder. That year New Orleans attained the unwanted distinction of being “The Murder Capital of America” and when the crooked cops were indicted and convicted of murder, it shook the department to its very core. Between 1992 and 1995 roughly sixty New Orleans police officers were charged in a wide variety of crimes. Bribes were common. Extortion by NOPD officers was common. Police brutality was rampant. All of this and more earned the city the nickname of “the Big Sleazy” and gave the NOPD the well-deserved reputation as the most corrupt police department in the country.
The mayor of New Orleans at that time was Marc Morial who defended the city’s police department and bristled at news reports of rampant police corruption. Even though he retained the police superintendent who had been appointed by his predecessor, Morial launched a nationwide search for a chief who could shake up the NOPD and set it on the road to reform. He finally chose then-Assistant Police Chief Richard J. Pennington of the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department.
And Pennington definitely shook things up. He raised standards for hirings. He fired many unfit officers. He revamped the department’s internal affairs division and moved it outside the department in insure confidentially for citizens registering complaints against officers. It took a while but Pennington reformed the NOPD as best as it could be reformed.
So when recent reports of NOPD officers leaving their posts surfaced as well as reports of officers breaking into unguarded homes to help themselves to contents therein, it’s really not hard to believe that not only could it be possible but probable. It’s especially believable for residents who lived with the long-term corruption that probably peaked back in the mid-90′s.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not anti-law enforcement. To the contrary, I am very pro-law enforcement. I have many friends and relatives who are or were law enforcement officers. And I firmly believe that the vast majority of police officers, even in New Orleans, are hard-working, honest individuals who are doing the best they can with what they have to work with. I respect them and support their efforts.
But a lot of questions will have to be answered at some point in regards to the New Orleans police department and the actions of their officers during and after Hurricane Katrina.
Eddie Compass may not be speaking now, but at some point he will have to. And I fear what he will say will not rest well with many.
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.
Typical New Orleans politics. There’s a lot more to this story. I hope it comes to light.