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New Orleans' top cop walks away

No one has any clue - or they won't say - why this cop's cop decided without warning to hand in a resignation.

By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published September 28, 2005

In the weeks after the hurricane battered his city and his police force, chief Eddie Compass swore he would be the last to quit. Tuesday, he did.

Hurricane Katrina had swamped the neighborhoods where he grew up, sparked looting and chaos through the city, and left his force depleted by desertions and disorganization.

He made sure his officers saw him pacing near Canal Street, shouting with a wrecked voice: "I'm the ultimate warrior! I'll be the last one to leave the battlefield!"

Tuesday he resigned. He wouldn't give a reason, or say if he was asked to leave.

"I served this department for 26 years and have taken it through some of the toughest times of its history. Every man in a leadership position must know when it's time to hand over the reins," Compass said at a news conference. "I'll be going on in another direction that God has for me."

Mayor Ray Nagin would not say whether Compass was pressured to resign.

"It's a sad day in the city of New Orleans when a hero makes a decision like this," Nagin said. "He leaves the department in pretty good shape and with a significant amount of leadership."

The mayor named Assistant Superintendent Warren Riley as acting superintendent.

In the aftermath of what Compass called "the greatest challenge that any city has faced in the history of mankind," about a third of the 1,700-member police force was missing - some fled, some were feared dead. About 150 officers had to be rescued from 8 feet of water, Compass said. Some were accused of joining in the looting. One was shot. Two committed suicide.

Compass has defended officers who stayed as heroes and said he wished he had a word stronger than coward for the ones who ran.

About 250 police officers - roughly 15 percent of the force - could face discipline for leaving their posts without permission, the department said Tuesday. Each case will be investigated to determine if the officer was truly a deserter or had legitimate reasons to be absent, deputy chief Riley said.

"Everything will be done on a case-by-case basis. The worst thing we could do is take disciplinary action against someone who was stranded in the storm or whose child is missing," Riley said.

Compass, 47, has three grown children, a wife about to give birth and a 3-year-old daughter who has anxiety attacks because she misses him. He has a bad back, bad knees and sprained ankles. But after the storm he insisted he would stay in New Orleans as an example to his officers.

He said in an interview earlier this month that he had broken down twice since the storm. Once when he mistakenly thought his oldest daughter had been raped in the aftermath. And later, when he gave his distraught spokesman the day off, and the man drove away and shot himself in his police car. Compass said he wouldn't give himself the luxury of showing weakness in front of his men, or taking time off to visit his wife and child in Biloxi.

Lt. David Benelli, president of the union for rank-and-file New Orleans officers, said he was shocked by the resignation.

"We've been through a horrendous time," Benelli said. "We've watched the city we love be destroyed. That is pressure you can't believe."

Benelli would not criticize Compass. "You can talk about lack of organization, but we have been through two hurricanes, there was no communications, problems everywhere," he said. "I think the fact that we did not lose control of the city is a testament to his leadership."

Compass had a reputation as a cop's cop, officers said, because he worked his way up through the ranks and didn't mind getting into a tussle or making an arrest. As chief, he once directed traffic after a car accident. "You won't find a lot of officers who didn't like him," said Sgt. Joseph Valienti, who handles Mardi Gras every year.

Compass, who has been chief since 2002, saw overall crime fall but was frustrated by an inability to budge the murder rate. More than 200 people are slain in New Orleans each year. Compass had prayed for an end to the murders, and quietly wondered if God had sent the hurricane - on his 47th birthday - to purge the city.

He grew up near the Desire and Lafitte housing projects and had family who lived in neighborhoods flooded in the storm. Many of the faces who pleaded for food and water outside the convention center were faces he knew.

Compass didn't have the tools he needed - officers, guns, radios - but he never quit, Valienti said.

"He never stopped trying to put the pieces together."

--Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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