Monday, October 03, 2005

Eddie Compass

Looking back over the last week, one story that surprised everyone was the retirement of the New Orleans Police Department chief, Eddie Compass. Time and lack of internet access didn't permit me to write a post then, but I have a unique perspective which qualifies me to comment.

Before he was appointed by Mayor Nagin to head the NOPD, Eddie Compass was the captain of the NOPD's First District. He had all the qualities that the city needed at the time in a superintendent. He was a cop's cop, a guy who knew the streets, could talk the talk, and walk and the walk. He commanded respect from his peers, and the African-American community of New Orleans. He was modest, he was generous toward people of any class or rank, and he remembered people. He was highly competitive, fully embracing the spirit of the NOPD COMSTAT process, and earned recognition for crime reductions in the First District. Although never accused of malfeasance, ironically, it is in his competitive spirit where I think Compass' most fatal flaw appears.

There has been considerable speculation over the years, as yet unproven, that the NOPD has been cooking the books with regard to crime reductions. The benefit, and the problem, with the COMSTAT model (originally championed by the New York Police Department) is that it creates a competitive environment of crime reduction which, without proper audits, will incline toward fudging the numbers.

The successor to Compass in the First District was Norvel Orazio, who, along with four other officers in the First District, was fired by Compass for mis-classifying crimes as lesser offenses. Another officer was demoted. A Public Integrity Division review of 2002 and 2003 crimes found that 42 percent of 700 sampled reports from the First District were incorrectly classified, and 17 percent were questionable. Serious crimes like shootings and armed robberies were typically re-classified as miscellaneous incidents pending further investigation.

Failing to overcome attacks on the methodology of the audit, the city agreed to reinstate all six officers. The imagination runs wild with speculation as to what led to that negotiated settlement. Was there the danger of a widening investigation which could have brought incriminations against other high-brass, including Compass' highly acclaimed record of crime reduction? hinted that Compass' record was not unassailable. In the review of the six incriminated officers, one incident that was downgraded under Compass came to light:

On the first day of the hearing, the attorneys held up what they called a prime example of the phenomenon: a theft labeled as a lost item.

But at the time of the incident, the commander in charge of the district wasn’t Capt. Orazio, but a Capt. Eddie Compass.

As a district commander, Compass' hidden fault was an inability to accept failure, or to admit mistakes. He was always a hard man in whom to find fault, but on some occasions, I saw his cool man-of-the-street demeanor punctured by once Deputy Superintendent, Ronal Serpas. Serpas knew his numbers, he followed investigations and crime series, and he identified crime patterns. In short, Serpas was a man who did his homework, and would often probe commanders to see if they were doing everything they could to catch bad guys. Serpas eventually caught everyone at a loss to explain some things - that was part of the COMSTAT game. Neither was Compass alone in covering up his failings. He tooted his horn whenever his performance was criticized. That's just human nature. But I think the tendency in Compass was stronger, forged in his roots as a man who grew up in the New Orleans projects.

The sharp-witted Times-Picayune columnist James Gill was not so kind:
The toughest decision that ever faces Compass is which of his many alleged virtues to brag about first. God failed to give him the wisdom and discernment to hold his vainglorious tongue.

I like Eddie Compass. He's a good guy - that is, he means well. I think the vacuum of leadership that emerged in the days following Hurricane Katrina was unfortunate. For all of the great things I could say about him, he was not the hoped-for leader that was needed in a time of crisis. Being a cop's cop is great, until a crisis occurs which forces a commander to ask of his subordinates things that require sacrifice - and I suspect that part of the problem of Katrina may reside in how Compass asked for that sacrifice, if he asked at all. He may not have had the confidence of leadership, or the prior vision, to deal with the situation in a manner that would have given officers the confidence they needed to do their jobs.

I know, for example, that a lot of law enforcement officers from different departments complained that they didn't have an ample opportunity to take care of their homes and families. In part, this was because of the speed with which Katrina's forecasted landfall changed. But the NOPD, like other agencies, doesn't have a policy in place to ensure that officers have the time they need to take care of personal matters before a hurricane. They're just expected to show up for duty the same as any other time of the year. Some leniency could be offered in the schedule to allow time to make personal preparations. My recommendation would be for first responding agencies to have a plan in which, when a major disaster strikes, first-responders' families are automatically taken out of harm's way so that those critical personnel can do their jobs without worry for their families.

I have no doubt that Compass was overwhelmed by the scale of the chaos, with looters shooting at police and rescue personnel at random. I can think of no one who wouldn't crumble under the duress of such conditions, and there is no way that the NOPD, which has never had the numbers of people it requires, could have responded adequately. The situation was well beyond the point at which local first responders could have been expected to adequately handle. That's why help was needed, immediately, from the Louisiana State Police, the National Guard, the Coast Guard, FEMA, and any other agency whose service was later called into action. That's why President Bush leadership, remaining on his vacation for two days after Katrina, not discovering the scale of the crisis until the response was irreparably delayed, was so absolutely, mind-bogglingly reprehensible. Recognizing Compass' failings, I think he's taking the fall for others who are themselves not blameless - Blanco, Nagin, the New Orleans City Council, state representatives, and the Louisiana congressional delegation. They all came around, eventually, after it was too late.

What about a replacement for Compass?

Some people have suggested in the Times-Picayune Orleans Town Hall Forum that former NOPD police Chief Richard Pennington be brought back. Pennington resigned from the helm of the NOPD in the faulty belief that he could win the race for mayor. He came in second place to Ray Nagin. Pennington was running on what I view as his undue reputation as a reformer.

Pennington had no respect and didn't know how to lead. In part, this lack of respect may have to do with the fact that he was (admirably) firing so many corrupt officers - or at least following other people's recommendations - but he also appeared clueless about the nuts and bolts of police work. Pennington's greatest attribute was either courage, or vanity mixed with a little imaginative storytelling, concerning his own reports of threats against his life. Pennington seldom appeared in the weekly COMSTAT meetings, and when he did, it was often to make an issue of something mundane. He once interrupted a discussion about a series of murders to scold commanders that officers were seen conducting traffic without orange vests. One indication of what his own people thought about him is that people used to write graffiti about Pennington on bathroom stalls in headquarters at Tulane and Broad.

The celebrated crime reductions in New Orleans under Pennington may have more to do with the downward trend in crime experienced nationwide. Were crime reductions in New Orleans deeper than the rest of the nation? Given the allegations of cooking the books, I think the case has yet to be made.

Ironically, the deeper problems which Pennington left behind are now bedeviling him in Atlanta, where he went to work as police chief after his bid for mayor of New Orleans.

Some people credit former Mayor Marc Morial for the reform of the department and crime reduction. I'm not waiting in line to give Morial any credit either. Morial nicely lined his pockets with kickbacks while patronizing his African American base. After a number of scandals, including a hit on a witness ordered by an NOPD cop. The bottom line is that the course of action required to fix the NOPD was obvious by the time Pennington stepped in - either the corruption and crime was going to be fixed, or the feds were going to take over the department.

The one person who deserved more credit than he got, and who was extremely under-appreciated, was Deputy Superintendent Ronal Serpas. He had the respect, he knew the numbers, and he knew the street. Serpas tolerated no fools, and fired anyone who committed the least violation of department policy. He championed the COMSTAT model, instilling pride in accomplishment, and promoting strong performers to positions of leadership. Eddie Compass' rise to Superintendent was built on his accomplishments under Serpas. His departure for a command position outside of Louisiana was a tremendous loss to the department, and one which I believe is reflected in the higher crime rate.

My choices for Superintendent:

1) Ronal Serpas - I understand he still has family in New Orleans, and might like to return.

2) Anthony Cannatella - 6th District Commander. A tough old codger who's not afraid to knock down doors to take down bad guys. He has respect and integrity.

3) Warren Riley - his rise through the ranks is mostly due to playing politics a little too well, keeping his head down to avoid being noticed. Nevertheless, he's extremely bright, keeps a cool head, and has vision.

Ultimately, I think the cogs of reform continue to grind forward at the NOPD, but continued scrutiny is absolutely necessary. Eddie Compass was an important factor in that reform, even if his record isn't lily white. Still, he's a good guy who cares about the city, and I'm sure he'll find a way to put his talents and energy to good use. I wish him well.


At 10/03/2005 01:46:00 PM, Blogger Bayoumusings said...

Nice post, probally the most informed that I have seen so far.

At 10/05/2005 04:05:00 AM, Blogger Pawpaw said...

You may be right about Chief Compass, he may be a magnificent cop. His main failing is that he forgot the first lesson of police work: You don't take things from law-abiding people. On tape, he said that he was going to confiscate firearms, in a place where a firearm was a legal commodity.

That failure either makes him an idiot or a criminal. Either way, he was tested as to his propensity to "Protect and Serve" and he failed when it counted most.

At 10/05/2005 04:34:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Agreed, paw paw.


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