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Tuesday, September 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New Orleans police chief resigns

The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS – Police Superintendent Eddie Compass resigned Tuesday after four turbulent weeks in which the police force was wracked by desertions and disorganization in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

"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."

As the city slipped into anarchy during the first few days after Katrina, the 1,700-member police department itself suffered a crisis. Many officers deserted their posts, and some were accused of joining in the looting that broke out. Two officers Compass described as friends committed suicide.

Neither Compass nor Mayor Ray Nagin would say whether Compass was pressured to leave.

"It's a sad day in the city of New Orleans when a hero makes a decision like this," said Nagin, who appointed Compass in mid-2002. "He leaves the department in pretty good shape and with a significant amount of leadership."

New Orleans evacuees at a shelter in Baton Rouge disagreed over the chief's legacy and whether he should have resigned.

"It's about time," said Larry Smit, 52, who owns a construction company. "Get rid of all of them. They ain't doing anything."

But truck driver James Dordain, 41, said Compass had been doing a good job with an understaffed department and faced with an unprecedented natural disaster.

"They pushed a good man to the breaking point," said Dordain, referring to other government authorities. "When they came, it was really too late."

The mayor named Assistant Superintendent Warren Riley as acting superintendent.

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."

But in fact, chaos reigned in New Orleans as Katrina's floodwaters rose. Gunfire and other lawlessness broke out around the city. Rescue workers reported being shot at.

At the height of the Katrina chaos, Compass fed the image of lawlessness in the city by publicly repeating allegations that people were being beaten and babies raped at the convention center, where thousands of evacuees had taken shelter. The allegations have since proved largely unsubstantiated.

Ronnie Jones, a former Louisiana state police officer and a criminal justice instructor at Tulane and Southeastern Universities, said communication and transportation problems after the storm forced commanders on the ground to operate without any direction from above.

"In the midst of that, I think any chief would have had trouble dealing with things," Jones said. "In a crisis you have to coordinate forces. I don't think he had the resources, the radios, the communications to do that."

Earlier in the day Tuesday, the department said that about 250 police officers — roughly 15 percent of the force — could face discipline for leaving their posts without permission during Katrina and its aftermath.

Each case will be investigated to determine whether the officer was truly a deserter or had legitimate reasons to be absent, 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.

Sally Forman, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said it is not clear whether the deserters can be fired. She said the city is still looking into the civil service regulations.

"If they are deserters and deserted their post for no other reason than they were scared, then I don't see any need for them to come back," Benelli said.

But the union chief said he believes only a small fraction of the officers will wind up being deserters. "We know there were officers who had to make critical decisions about what to do with their families," Benelli said.

Riley said some officers lost their homes and some are looking for their families, but others "simply left because they said they could not deal with the catastrophe."

Before Katrina hit, Compass already had his hands full with an understaffed police department and a skyrocketing murder rate, even as the rate dropped dramatically in other cities.

Despite more than 10 years of reform efforts dating back to before Compass took office, police were dogged by allegations of brutality and corruption. Several studies indicated that the public's reluctance to cooperate with police was a factor in the city's crime problem.

Before Katrina, New Orleans had 3.14 officers per 1,000 residents — less than half the rate in Washington, D.C.

Also on Tuesday, the state Health Department reported that Katrina's death toll in Louisiana stood at 885, up from 841 on Friday.

Tuesday marked the second day of the official reopening of New Orleans, which had been pushed back last week when Hurricane Rita threatened. Nagin welcomed residents back to the Algiers neighborhood on Monday but imposed a curfew and warned of limited services.

Nagin also invited business owners in the central business district, the French Quarter and the Uptown section to inspect their property and clean up. But he gave no timetable for reopening those parts of the city to residents.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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