EDDIE COMPASS BREAKS HIS SILENCE
Friday, August 25, 2006
By Trymaine Lee
A month after Katrina drowned his hometown and traumatized his troops, New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass stood before a throng of reporters inside a downtown hotel, preparing to deliver his resignation.
By then his public gaffes and stirring monologues of a city under siege, where killers ran amok and rapists violated babies, had been debunked mostly as myth. Compass soon became a worldwide scapegoat for the rumor-mongering that had possessed post-Katrina New Orleans.
Through a series of emotional flare-ups, he had become a lamb who seemed to lead himself to slaughter. Images of his teary breakdowns would be forever seared into the city's collective memory, in ways both inspiring and troubling.
The reporters in the hotel that day would cut him little slack, punishing him with his own words.
To the outside world, Compass came to symbolize the dysfunction and exaggeration of city officials, including Mayor Ray Nagin, who after the storm had little time or means to corroborate wild claims of lawlessness both men helped spread during those chaotic days, when all standard communications had failed. The catastrophe, the relentless media coverage -- it all overwhelmed Compass, the hometown cop who had vigorously scaled the ranks of the department to become chief.
A fog of tension hung in the room that September day as Nagin strode confidently to a podium in a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel.
Compass stood behind him, flanked by a handful of deputy chiefs and NOPD commanders.
A smiling Nagin painted a portrait of a man leaving at the top of his game, quipping that Compass would go on to make a lot of money. He even requested the occasional Christmas card.
Although Compass affirmed Nagin's ruse with his own measured words from the podium, his mannerisms told a different tale. His usual jovial, frat-boy exuberance gave way to clenched teeth and wet eyes as he delivered a humble farewell.
"Since I was a little boy, my whole life, I wanted to be the superintendent of police," Compass said, his eyes welling. "In the life of every leader the time comes to reflect on his life, and I'm very, very thankful God gave me the wisdom and discernment to make tough decisions."
Compass and Nagin, who equally became heroes and villains at different points during Katrina, parted ways that day and never looked back.
But inside, Compass has been tormented by a truth he swallowed 11 months ago at that podium and hasn't spoken publicly about since: In his view, Nagin pushed him out, in the middle of the darkest hour of his career and his department's history. He believes his ouster is at least in part based on miscommunications and misunderstandings traded in the impersonal medium of e-mail.
Nagin's account differs in the details, but he now confirms he asked the chief to step aside.
In an exclusive interview with The Times-Picayune, Compass recounted his rise through the ranks, his spectacular fall, and his renewed devotion to being a husband and father.
"I never saw my career ending like this," Compass said recently over the rising din of the lunch crowd at Byblos, a Magazine Street restaurant. "It just wasn't supposed to be like this."
Mayor not pleased
The night before Compass' resignation, he got an e-mail from Nagin on his Blackberry.
The chief held the contraption in his hand that night and scrolled through several paragraphs before any of it made sense. Each sentence burned slowly into the next.
"Myself as well as many others including people very close to you started to notice very erratic and overly emotional behavior from you . . . exploding on TV," Nagin wrote.
Compass kept reading in disbelief.
"I ordered everyone not to talk to the press unless approved by myself or Sally Forman," who at the time was the mayor's spokeswoman, Nagin wrote. "Then I hear you on the Dr. Phil show and in New York on the NFL show before the Saints game. . . . This is not subtle, and deceit is very disappointing and hurtful. . . . You need to start thinking about your future," the mayor wrote.
Nagin told Compass he needed to come up with a 30- to 60-day "exit plan."
After 27 years in the New Orleans Police Department, Compass sat stunned, struggling to grasp the fact that his departure had been ordered in a few hastily written words displayed on the tiny screen he held in his hand. Not face-to-face, man-to-man, or even on the phone, but in an e-mail.
Compass read on, increasingly incensed.
"Maybe this is a transition time while you are still on top," the mayor wrote. He urged Compass to "go on the speaking circuit or run for criminal sheriff."
Finding his family
Compass wasn't surprised by some of Nagin's points. He knew at times he had become wrought with emotion unbecoming his rank.
He watched from a front-row seat as his city descended into chaos, with nothing to buoy it from a slow, watery death. His wife was 8 months pregnant and exiled in Denham Springs with his 3-year-old daughter. For three days, he said, he took to heart rumors that his 19-year-old daughter had been raped at the downtown hotel where she, his ex-wife and 24-year-old daughter had been holed up during the storm. But the story proved false. His daughters were fine.
And his soul ached over the suicide of Paul Accardo, one of his top public information officers. Compass had seen Accardo's eyes go blank in a thousand-yard stare, projecting the despair in his heart.
Compass told him to take a few days off, to gather himself. A half-hour later, Accardo sat in a squad car just outside the city with a gun to his head. He squeezed the trigger.
News of the suicide crushed Compass, setting him adrift in a sea of grief and guilt. As police chief, he knew he had to handle himself professionally, to maintain calm and confidence. But that would have gone against the core of his nature.
"Sometimes you have to give up your human side," he said, recalling the incident. "But I think because I talked to Paul 30 minutes before he committed suicide, because I was the one who told him to take a break . . . I blamed myself for giving him off and not keeping him with me."
'Just cried and cried'
Tiffany Compass, 24, and her sister, Kandice, 19, said they watched from a second-story window at the Ritz-Carlton hotel as their father, in their eyes a superhero, came to the hotel looking for them.
For days, while trapped in the hotel, she heard the same wild reports of violence that her father had.
"We just cried and cried. . . . We had no radio, no TV. I know how scared we were. . . . To know he was hearing the same stuff, and from policemen nonetheless, it must've been a thousand times worse," Tiffany said.
When her father finally rescued them, he arrived with a small army of police.
"It was like he came with the whole cavalry," Tiffany Compass said. "My sister was screaming, 'Daddy! Daddy!'. . . He just looked up and smiled and then like an entire SWAT team came rushing in for us."
But even then, she could see the sadness in him.
"I saw in his face all that he had been through, and I could see the despair in those officers' faces, the disbelief," she said.
The pain bubbled inside Eddie Compass, poured from his eyes and tumbled from his lips in front of the cameras. And there were thousands of cameras, each hungry for the next wrenching shot of the city and its beleaguered residents, or those, like Compass, shouldering the full weight of the tragedy.
Still, emotions and all, Compass said unapologetically that he left all of himself in the streets of New Orleans.
"I think I did the best that I could do under the circumstances," he said. "There are many things that the public didn't know I was dealing with at that time."
Compass got Nagin's message, but he couldn't understand the motivation.
The mayor had accused him of going behind his back, speaking to the media without his consent. But the "Dr. Phil" show taping Nagin mentioned was three days before the mandate was issued. What Compass didn't know was that Nagin already had decided to freeze him out of the media spotlight. Forman, then the mayor's communications chief, said Nagin wanted to quiet Compass.
But in the case of the NFL show and tapings for an HBO sports program, it was Forman who had arranged the trip to New York where Compass performed the coin toss for the Saints home-away-from-home game against the New York Giants on Sept. 19, he said.
In a recent interview, Forman acknowledged for the first time that she gave Compass the green light to go to New York -- and never told the mayor.
"At that point I had a job on my hands when it came to Chief Compass, and I made the call," she said. "I said yes to the NFL and I did not clear it with the mayor."
Forman saw the event as a low-profile way to get Compass "out of the fray," she said, and away from the hordes of international media in New Orleans. She said the mayor wanted him out of the picture.
"I actually saw it as a good thing, for him to go to New York and get out of New Orleans, where the pressure was great," she said.
But as soon as Compass touched down, he was approached by reporters and camera crews who had been tipped off about the trip. Nagin watched from afar as his police chief again took center stage, speaking to the world audience about Katrina and the suffering in New Orleans after the storm.
Compass said he thought he had the mayor's blessing, as he had communicated through Forman.
"Sally Forman called and said the NFL wants you to fly up to New York," he said. "She said, 'If you don't, it's going to be a slap in the face to the NFL.' "
The game, at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., was considered a home game for the vagabond Saints and a welcome diversion.
Troy Henry, Compass' best friend for three decades, accompanied the chief to New Jersey, where reporters hung on his every word.
"I was shielding him from some of it. It was like he was a huge rock star," Henry said. "Once they knew he was in town, it was like a zoo."
The NFL fiasco may have exhausted the mayor's patience, but it was only one of several factors that brought Compass down, Forman said.
To soften the blow, the mayor told the public it was Compass' decision to leave.
"At the time, we all said it was Chief Compass leaving on his own accord to be closer to his wife," she said. "But there is much more to it than that. There's a whole other side to this picture."
A few hours before Compass stepped down, he and Nagin had locked horns in a heated argument aboard a cruise ship housing first responders that had been docked on the Mississippi River, associates in Compass' camp said.
Compass declined to discuss the details of the meeting, but said it made him realize that the relationship between him and Nagin had run its course.
In not-so-subtle terms, Compass said, Nagin offered two clear choices that day: Resign or be fired.
"When your boss tells you to come up with an exit plan, you know exactly what that means," Compass said.
Nagin's version differs. He said the meeting on the ship the morning of Compass' resignation was cordial, even friendly. He disputed the notion that he forced Compass out of office, and said that if he wanted to fire Compass he simply would have done so.
"The real deal is, he resigned," Nagin said. "We talked at breakfast before and had a very direct and professional conversation. I encouraged him to move on because I felt he could go out on top before any negative media started. . . .We shook hands, hugged, and left as friends."
Nagin said he saw Compass' emotions wearing thin.
"His commanders expressed serious concerns about him, he was on a fairly regular basis making statements to the press that were somewhat illogical," Nagin said.
At the time of the New York trip, Nagin shad no idea Forman had cleared it without telling him, the mayor said.
"He then told me he was going to New York to get some rest," Nagin said. "Next thing I knew he did those two shows without directly telling me. I felt he disobeyed my order and tried to use Sally as a shield."
Nagin said recently that he would have backed down if Compass had fought to keep his job.
Compass "initially said he was not ready to go, and then after thinking for a minute told me that I was right, and he had a young daughter and needed to spend more time with his family," Nagin said. "He left very relieved, and if he would have really pushed hard to stay and agreed to my orders, I would have allowed him to continue to serve as chief. When I fire people I do not give them options."
A few hours after that breakfast meeting in September, the two men shared center stage for the last time.
With the benefit of hindsight, Compass admits his role in feeding post-Katrina hysteria over rumored violence that exaggerated the thuggery of New Orleanians. The manic atmosphere slowed rescue efforts because of security concerns. And he wishes he hadn't aired many of his private emotions, feeding the public his guts on a platter.
"There is no doubt I made many mistakes," he said. "If I could do it all over again I would do a lot of things a lot differently.
"I was so worried about not being perceived as covering things up that I gave information when it was given to me, before I had it verified, and it caused a lot of confusion and a lot of problems," he said.
Tiffany Compass said her father's impassioned pleas might have been inappropriate at times, but it was just "Daddy" being himself, right or wrong but always true to his feelings.
"He's not a politician, he's not in it for the media attention, that's not his deal," she said. "He's just an emotional guy who tells it like it is and keeps it real. He has always been like that, just straight up. When he was telling what he heard, that was his reality, it was for all of us. What we knew as our reality was what we heard."
'I've been quiet'
For more than 11 months, Compass has been essentially an invisible man, purposely taking a low profile except for the occasional speaking engagement. A couple of months after leaving his post as superintendent of police, Compass took a job as a security consultant for New Orleans Fine Hotels, a collection of 11 hotels in the city's historic districts. More recently he has signed on with the chain as a community relations consultant as well.
The new gig has made for a low-key transition into civilian life. It's a bit of an anticlimax for a man who once bragged of being able to tear a phone book in half with his bare hands, and who during Katrina proclaimed himself the "ultimate warrior," fearlessly chasing down muzzle flashes in the dark and beating armed criminals.
"I've been quiet because I realized that silence can be misinterpreted, but it can't be misquoted," he said. "And I've been quiet for . . . months. But it's time, because it's not going away, and I thought my silence would make it go away."
He said it's important for the people of New Orleans to understand the truth about his forced resignation.
So he has traded his badge and bravado for bedtime stories with his 10-month-old son, Marlon, and 3-year-old daughter, Lauretta -- also known as "The Boss."
Their favorite bedtime story: "I Am a Manatee," by award-winning television and stage actor John Lithgow, a tale Compass knows by heart and can read and sing along with on cue.
"I think Eddie is very content with his current life," best friend Henry said, "with the ability for him to have quality time with the people he cares most about."
Escaping the blazing sun on a recent Monday afternoon, Compass and Henry ducked into Byblos.
A pair of old friends greeted the ex-chief with smiles and open arms, and a former NOPD district commander offered a big bear hug.
Compass took a seat at a table in the back of the restaurant. He ordered salmon, thinly sliced tomato and an artichoke and spinach dip. Now on a low-stress schedule, he has returned to the gym and watches what he eats.
Whatever happens from here, Compass remains at peace with a police career that included stints at every rank, bottom to top, over 27 good years. He served as chief, deputy chief, and before that commander of the gritty 1st District, which included his teenage stomping grounds around the Lafitte public housing complex.
Still a struggle
Looking back, those were his happiest days on the force, he said, before he stepped into the role of chief, where office politics eroded his strengths as a street cop.
"Being chief was totally different," Compass said, delivering his words carefully. "I had always been a street cop. . . . If I had to do my whole life all over again, and my career over again, I don't know if I would have taken that route to be chief."
Compass said he still struggles daily with the trauma Katrina heaped on his shoulders, particularly the suicide of Accardo.
He had paid a steep price while ascending the heights of the department. His fierce devotion to his career cost him his first wife, Fran, he said, with whom he had three children, Tiffany, Little Eddie, 22, and Kandice.
In the past year he has renewed bonds with his older children and created stronger ones with his two youngest and his wife, Arlene.
Ironically, Aug. 29, the anniversary of the disaster that signaled a forever-changed New Orleans as well as the end of Compass' police career, is his birthday. He'll be 48.
As for his legacy, Compass knows he can't control it. And he doesn't much care to.
"I don't know how history is going to remember me," Compass said. "All I know is that, in my heart, I did the best I could."
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Trymaine Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3301.