New Orleans Police Chief Steps Down

The head of New Orleans' police department, Eddie Compass, has resigned. This weekend, he announced that 249 officers, or about 15 percent of the force, are absent without leave after the hurricanes. A special tribunal will determine who has deserted and who has legitimate absences from work.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin today in New Orleans, where the head of the city's police department, Superintendent Eddie Compass, has resigned. The department is getting ready to investigate hundreds of officers who left their posts during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. It's unclear whether Compass resigned under pressure. The mayor is calling him a hero. From New Orleans, NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

When the hurricane hit and residents were stranded in their homes, looters were attacking stores and conditions were deteriorating in the Superdome and Convention Center, the question emerged: Where was the New Orleans Police Department? That lack of response in the city's worst hour has dogged the department over the last few weeks, and today the police superintendent, Eddie Compass, said he was stepping down.

Mr. EDDIE COMPASS (Resigning New Orleans Police Department Superintendent): Within the next 30 to 45 days, during the transition period, I will be retiring as superintendent of police. And I will be going on in another direction God has for me.

SMITH: Compass didn't give any reasons for retiring now, but the move comes after reports that hundreds of his officers went AWOL after and during the hurricane. This weekend police Superintendent Eddie Compass announced the desertions.

Mr. COMPASS: There are 249 individuals who have been identified as not being here during those different times.

SMITH: That's 15 percent of the department. The chief has stressed that nearly all of his top commanders did stay at their posts and worked long hours to help evacuate and patrol the city. The accused officers won't be suspended or fired immediately. As civil service employees, the chief said that there is an official process that must be followed. Four deputy chiefs will act as a tribunal to look into the individual circumstances of the desertions.

Mr. COMPASS: Each deputy chief is going to have deputy chief hearings for those 249 individuals. Each individual will be judged on a case-by-case basis. We have a penalty schedule for each violation. And when that process takes place, individuals will have the right to appeal the decisions made by the bureau chiefs.

SMITH: The president of the Police Association of New Orleans, the union for rank-and-file officers, welcomed the investigation. He said those who left their posts because of cowardice shouldn't be part of the force. But he cautions that some officers had to make tough decisions to protect their families. Others may not have been able to return to the city.

The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, stood with the police chief as he announced his resignation. Mayor Nagin said that Compass was a good man.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): He's a man who helped to guide this city through one of the toughest times it's ever had, and that was during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He's a man who is loved by many. We will miss him.

SMITH: The New Orleans Police Department has also been accused of much worse problems than desertion. A few residents and business owners have accused some police officers of looting during the hurricane. The spokesperson for the police says that officers might have been recovering stolen property and that moving such items may have been mistaken for theft.

The accusations against the New Orleans police and the chief's resignation will be tough on morale. The department has been accused of corruption in the past and has had trouble recruiting and retaining officers, even before the hurricane. Now much of the force has lost their homes and are living in a cruise ship on the Mississippi River with their families. Robert Smith, NPR News, New Orleans.

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