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Katrina's Aftermath;
Police Rescue Own Reputation;
New Orleans' force was known more for corruption than heroism. Then Katrina hit, and Eddie Compass' department hit its stride.

Solomon Moore, Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS


Before Hurricane Katrina, Police Supt. Eddie Compass' department was unlikely to be the object of praise.

It had just emerged from an eight-year federal investigation into police abuse and a pattern of civil rights violations -- between 1994 and 1999 more than 200 police were dismissed from the force or convicted of crimes, including two murders.

New Orleans led the nation in per capita homicides last year and had one of the highest overall crime rates -- all at a time when the department was struggling to replace officers and to increase the size of the force.

But the hurricane changed all that.

Now Compass, 47, a stocky karate devotee, is shadowed by news cameras and visited by national dignitaries. When he glad-hands and bearhugs "his boys" in the devastated streets of New Orleans, a gaggle of television schedulers usually follows, begging him to appear on various news shows.

The efforts of New Orleans police officers, many of whom lost their own homes and loved ones, to secure the city and rescue stranded residents has brought praise from many quarters.

Last week, Compass' force was arguably the only thing that kept the city from descending into complete chaos after the storm.

Hundreds of New Orleans officers remained in the city in an attempt to control a desperate population of thousands, even as their own food and water ran out.

"Some of my guys even ran out of ammunition," Compass said. Several police stations were cut off by high water. Police communications went silent and dozens of police vehicles were lost in the flood, severely impairing officers' ability to move about the city.

Five hundred officers have been missing since the storm, and the diminished force was overwhelmed with rescuing people, stopping looters and vandals and securing the evacuation areas, Compass said.

In some cases, he said, officers attempting to stop looters were targeted by sniper fire. They were involved in several gunfights. At least two policemen were injured in gun battles, he said, but none fatally.

Compass' officers were also among the first to stage rescue missions in the areas most affected by the flood. In their determination to retrieve survivors, some of them hot-wired privately owned boats left behind by evacuees.

On Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney briefly visited Compass to thank him for the efforts. And Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore praised Compass for "doing an outstanding job."

"No police department has ever been through what we've been through and survived," Compass said. "The New Orleans Police Department is the best police department in the world."

But questions remain about whether Compass and other city officials could have done more to evacuate New Orleans before the hurricane and subsequent flooding and to secure it afterward.

There also are questions about whether the police could have done more to quell the disorder in two downtown evacuation centers where thousands of residents lived without adequate food, water or toilet facilities for almost a week.

Compass said his officers did the best they could in a difficult situation.

"We didn't have any resources -- food, water, clothes, vehicles, medical supplies. We didn't have any backup," he said, exasperated. "Why didn't we do a better job? That's not a question I can answer."

Compass said that on Aug. 28, the day before the storm hit, he sent officers into neighborhoods "and they put lights and loudspeakers on telling them that there was a big storm coming." Other officials with the department, however, including spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo, said they didn't recall such actions being taken.

Compass said he also ordered his officers to fill patrol cars with gas and move them to higher ground. Yet the flood destroyed or made inaccessible more than 200 department vehicles.

"We've had hurricanes and floods before," Compass said. "But never like this. I mean, how do you plan for a Category 5 hurricane and the levee breaking?"

Mayor C. Ray Nagin promoted Compass in 2002 in a push to clean up corruption. Compass, a native of New Orleans' Treme area, said he had seen the dark side of the city's police force as a youth.

"I heard my friends talk about how the police called them 'boy' or the 'n word,' " Compass said. "But God put it in my heart that I could be an agent of change. I wanted to be a conduit between the African American community and police."

A man of hyperactive energy and confidence, Compass said he had always wanted to be head of the New Orleans Police Department and had kept that goal as he rose through the ranks.

"That was an education I couldn't put a price on," Compass said. "I learned that politics is all about connections and relationships."

Compass said his tenure as the station captain of New Orleans' 1st District was also a formative time for him. The district was one of the most diverse in the city, as it spanned both the notorious Iberville housing projects and affluent areas around Canal Street.

"That taught me how to deal with people on all levels," he said.

As Compass' career developed, one of his mentors took him aside and suggested that he needed to improve his resume.

"So I went back to school -- I got my bachelor's and my master's. I went to the FBI National Academy. I went to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard for senior management training," he said.

"Before the flood, I was about to start my PhD at the University of New Orleans. I trained my mind the way I trained my body, so I can be the ultimate warrior," he said.

Compass took over a department that was in deep trouble. The FBI was in its sixth year of a federal probe into police abuse, and the reputation of the department was so battered that it was struggling to find 300 officers it needed to achieve a recommended force of 2,000.

Compass said he was making progress, however, and had hired officers from all around the country. The city's crime rate fell by 11% last year, but the homicide rate continued to be the highest in the nation.

"It was really a frustration of mine," he said. "We've never gone below 200 murders a year no matter who is the chief.

"It wasn't what I was doing wrong, it was what the people were doing. We've got some youngsters who think that if they live past 25 they're doing good. I don't understand that mentality."

Compass said the crime rate was likely to be lower than ever now because so many of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods were swept away by Katrina.

"If there's any silver lining to all of this," he said, "it's that the criminal element is displaced. Hopefully they won't give the jurisdictions they move to too much trouble."
 
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