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The Education of Eddie Compass

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Last week, New Orleans Police Capt. Edwin "Eddie" Compass emerged from a field of four NOPD commanders to replace outgoing Superintendent Richard Pennington. On May 24, Mayor Ray Nagin swore in the 42-year-old Compass, a 23-year NOPD veteran who spent most of the last five years as commander of the First Police District.

Compass takes pride in his career as a "street cop" who has battled crime and poverty in the housing projects of his youth. Compass also has a reputation for political acumen -- he spent part of his career providing security for then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy. But Compass owes his latest career move to more than just politics. The education of Eddie Compass also was a decisive factor in his rise to chief.

A year ago this month, Chief Pennington -- over the loud objections of the four major police groups -- persuaded the Civil Service Commission to implement modest college education requirements for future supervisory promotions at NOPD. Assistant Superintendent Ronal Serpas, a career cop and former high school dropout who earned a Ph.D. in urban studies at the University of New Orleans, insisted the higher standards were not onerous. "There is a significant relationship between higher education and the [effective] management of police departments ... and we believe in it," Serpas said. ("Take Down the Roadblocks," May 15, 2001.)

The higher education standards became one of the all-too-few police reforms institutionalized during the Morial-Pennington era. When Serpas left NOPD last July to become chief of the Washington State Highway Patrol, the department suddenly had two deputy chief vacancies to fill. Two of Compass' fellow commanders, armed with master's degrees, took the department's No. 2 and No. 3 posts. Compass was left in the district, holding a bachelor's degree. Unbowed, he continued to pursue a master's degree in criminal justice, which he began in January 2001.

In the ensuing mayor's race, Nagin spoke of a nationwide search for police chief. In fact, respected head-hunters such as the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington were never fully utilized, sources say. The NOPD chief's vacancy was posted on PERF's Web site on April 4 -- with an application deadline date of April 12. No wonder all four finalists were NOPD veterans.

Fortunately, the Pennington education reforms raised the bar for promotion to the higher ranks, including that of chief. On May 18, Compass received his master's degree from Loyola University. Nagin appointed him chief three days later. We congratulate him on his new degree and on his new position. Education expands anyone's arsenal of options for solving problems -- and Chief Compass will have no shortage of problems. Among them:

· Already understaffed at 1,630 cops, NOPD ranks may be further depleted after June 30, the deadline for veteran cops to take an annual pension incentive offered by the state Municipal Police Employees Retirement System. In addition, younger officers have been lured away by federal law enforcement agencies since Sept. 11.

· Compass wants to attack the resurgence of crime in public housing, but federal funding for community policing is on the wane.

· Compass also wants to improve NOPD's Public Integrity Division (PID), which investigates police misconduct. "We have to restore the public's confidence in that process," he says. That, too, will cost money.

Watchdogs such as the Metropolitan Crime Commission, the Police Foundation and civil rights attorney Mary Howell agree that PID must be improved. Statistically, Howell says, PID has regressed to the dark days of 1994, when corruption and brutality were rampant. PID sustained only four (less than 1 percent) of 450 civilian complaints of unauthorized force by cops during a three-year period ending in 2000. PID has done "a little better" on complaints of police discourtesy, says Howell, but it has sustained none of the 135 civilian complaints of theft by police from 1998 through Aug. 31, 2001. All but four months of the grim data pre-dates the command of PID Maj. James Treadaway, who took office in April 2001.

Disciplining fellow cops may be Compass' toughest task. "I think Chief Compass is one of the best members of the police force in terms of someone who has empathy for the average police officer," says former U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan. "His challenge will be to put those relationships on the side and to make tough decisions that will not be popular with rank and file."

Compass can also restore faith in NOPD crime statistics by establishing routine audits in conjunction with university schools of computer science, mathematics and public administration -- a recommendation of a 1998 OMI investigation that Pennington and Morial ignored.

As he begins his post, we echo the statements of retired Superintendent Warren Woodfork, the city's first black police chief. "I admire Eddie Compass for his capabilities as a street cop and because he furthered his education to hone his administrative skills," Woodfork says.

We look forward to Compass putting his education and his experience to the task of increasing public confidence in NOPD.

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