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After weeks of turmoil, New Orleans' police chief steps down

NEW ORLEANS—At around 4:30 a.m. on the Wednesday after Hurricane Katrina hit hard, panicked by reports that intruders were trying to enter the hotel that had become his department's base of operations, New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass ran along the fourth-floor corridors, screaming, "Where are all the men? We need all the men downstairs, now!"

Compass yanked journalists, hotel guests, city workers and anyone else he could find to the first floor, telling them that looters were attacking the gasoline and food supplies that were being brought into the hotel. It wasn't true: There were no looters, and the people who were forced downstairs were used as a human chain to move the supplies inside.

On Tuesday, his department in a shambles and about 15 percent of his officers accused of deserting, Compass resigned during a hastily called news conference Tuesday with Mayor Ray Nagin.

"I'll be going on in another direction that God has for me," Compass said.

He said he'd taken the department through one of the toughest times in its history, "but the time comes in your life when you reflect about your life."

Compass, whose wife is about to give birth, said he "prayed with the men of God in this town. You must know when it's time to hand over the reins." He refused to take questions.

His resignation came a day after the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper cast doubt on many of the stories that Compass and Nagin had recounted at the height of the catastrophe: of shootouts between police and criminals in the Superdome and the city's convention center, snipers firing on rescuers and rapes of "babies."

Nagin had nothing but praise for his chief. "It's a sad day in the city of New Orleans when a hero makes a decision such as this," he said, adding, "He leaves this department in pretty good shape."

In the first week after the storm, the department had almost no communications, and misunderstandings and exaggerations were commonplace. Officers were unable to communicate with one another or headquarters, except on one limited channel that four area law-enforcement agencies were using.

Compass said Monday that 249 of his officers had deserted their posts during the storm and would be subject to a special tribunal.

The department lost 500 cars in floodwater. Two officers committed suicide, and the department took a serious blow to its morale when so many officers went missing.

In the two weeks after the storm, Compass lost 20 pounds, and was constantly hitching up his fatigues; the loose folds of his once-snug pants were cinched by a belt.

Ten days after the storm struck, Compass hit the streets of New Orleans in an attempt to prop up his officers' morale and restore his own reputation as the commander of a police force that had lost control of its city.

He bragged about meeting Oprah Winfrey as he made his rounds that day in the back of a red pickup, accompanied by reporters. At each stop, he hugged his officers and said he felt that because he'd been in the streets with them, under fire himself, they'd stay true to the department.

That day, Compass bristled at reporters who questioned whether his department had been prepared for the storm.

"I'm not a bureaucrat, and I'm not a politician," he said, before walking away in anger. "I'm ready to build. I'm talking about the positive; I can't deal with what happened in the past."

Compass repeatedly emphasized that there was no way that his department would have been able to handle Katrina.

"There wasn't a breakdown in the plan, it was a terrific catastrophic event. It defied human reality," Compass said. "We kept this city together under the worst of conditions with limited resources for six days."

Nagin echoed that Tuesday, describing Compass as a good man who "guided this city through one of its toughest times." "We will miss him," he added.

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(Bolstad and Spangler report for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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