NEW ORLEANS – The superintendent of the New Orleans police department has announced that he's retiring from his post.
Eddie Compass (search) didn't give any reason for the decision, announced Tuesday during a news conference.
"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. "I'll be going on in another direction that God has for me."
The announcement comes on the same day it was revealed that nearly 250 New Orleans police officers left their posts without permission during Hurricane Katrina (search).
Compass said he will retire within 30 days.
"He is a man who is loved by many, and we will miss him," said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (search). "It's a sad day in the city of New Orleans when a hero makes a decision like this. He leaves the department in pretty good shape and with a significant amount of leadership."
Neither Compass nor Nagin would say whether Compass was pressured to resign.
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."
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.
But 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, 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," said Riley.
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.
Benelli said true deserters should be fired.
"For those who left because of cowardice, they don't need to be here," Benelli told the paper. "If you're a deserter and you deserted your post for no other reason than you were scared, then you left the department and I don't see any need for you to come back."
But Benelli said he believes only a small fraction of the officers will wind up being deserters.
"We know there were people who flat-out deserted," he said. "But we also know there were officers who had to make critical decisions about what to do with their families."
Riley said some officers lost their homes and some are looking for their families. "Some simply left because they said they could not deal with the catastrophe," Riley said.
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 said Katrina's death toll in Louisiana stood at 885, up from 841 as of 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.