An Edmonds kind of cop: Chief Al Compaan reflects on 35 years
In these days of mobile careers, few professionals stay in one place very long. But not Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan.
In September 1978, a young Compaan, fresh out of college, landed his first job in law enforcement with the Edmonds Police Department. Today, 35 years later, he shows no signs of slowing down.
At 6’3″ tall, the 57-year-old Compaan remains slim, fit and bursting with energy. Despite an admittedly imposing presence, his easy smile and ready laughter put one quickly at ease.
“Having grown up in south Seattle, I naturally applied there first, but the competition was really stiff,” he says. “They gave the police officer written exam in Kane Hall at the University of Washington, and about 800 showed up to take it. The place was packed to the rafters.”
He didn’t make the cut. Undaunted, he started looking elsewhere, and Edmonds was high on his list.
Compaan had an early connection with Edmonds that ultimately played into his decision to settle here. “As a child, my father would take me up to the Edmonds Theater on weekends to see old time moves – Laurel and Hardy, WC Fields, Our Gang,” he recalls. “I guess that stuck Edmonds in my mind, so when the chance came up I took the test, got an interview, and was hired. I was ecstatic!”
His first job was Patrolman 3rd Class, the bottom rung of the ladder. Starting pay was $5.80 an hour.
Over the years, Compaan was promoted to Senior Officer, Sergeant, Assistant Chief and in 2007 to Chief of Police.
My Edmonds News talked with Chief Compaan about the changes he’s seen in the Edmonds Police Department over the years, issues facing the Department today, and how he sees the future of law enforcement in our town.
MEN: What are the big changes you’ve seen over the years in the Edmonds Police Department and in law enforcement in general?
Compaan: Law enforcement is so much more professional today. The training standards, reliance on technology, accountability are all light years beyond what it was when I started out.
Technology is probably the biggest area of change…digital photos, DNA analysis, computerized databases…all have contributed to improving and streamlining law enforcement.
Here in Edmonds we routinely use technology to get instant access to national databases of criminal records, DNA profiles, and other information. It’s really revolutionized the work we do. Combine this with rigorous, ongoing training, a supportive community, and a department staffed with top-notch people and the result is world class police work right here in the community.
And it’s not just me saying this. Just last month we were reaccredited by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. This entailed a rigorous review of our departmental standards and practices, and I’m proud to say we came through with flying colors.
MEN: For better or worse, the Police Department is always in the news. The recent coverage of the former Edmonds officer convicted of sexual misconduct got a lot of local attention. What measures is the department taking to help ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again?
Compaan: This was a very troubling issue both for the department and me personally. It truly pains me that this will reflect on the honorable men and women in the department. It erodes public trust. And in order to do our job well, we need the public’s trust and confidence. It’s absolutely critical.
How to keep it from happening again? Well, the key is to hire the best people, and part of this includes thorough and rigorous background checks, and a battery of psychological and polygraph tests. In this case we carefully reviewed the test results and all the background materials on this individual to see if we missed something, and I can honestly say that in this case no red flags were there.
But that said, I want to assure the community that this sort of behavior is absolutely not to be tolerated. What happened with this officer was illegal, unacceptable and against policy.
MEN: Another incident in the news recently concerns an officer filing a human rights complaint alleging sexual harassment in the department. Tell me about the kinds of things being done to help ensure a work environment that embraces diversity and is free of all forms of harassment.
Compaan: Traditionally law enforcement has been dominated by white males. Over my years in Edmonds, I’ve seen us make tremendous strides in building a department that reflects the community we serve. Despite this, females remain under-represented as uniformed officers. In Washington state only about 10 percent of commissioned officers are female. It’s a situation we’re working to change.
Because this case is still in litigation, I really can’t comment on the specifies. I will say though that by and large the male officers in Edmonds are very supportive of their female colleagues.
And everyone here knows how I feel about it: I insist on a workplace that’s free of any form of discrimination or harassment, and anyone who engages in these behaviors does so at great risk.
MEN: There are those who say crime is on the rise in Edmonds. As our chief law enforcement officer, how do you see this?
Compaan: Crime in our community today is being largely driven by drugs, specifically heroin. Heroin, and to a lesser degree methamphetamine, is plentiful and relatively cheap, and we have a growing population of addicts who turn to burglary to support their habit. Today residential burglaries are our main crime class.
But while the pressure is on, we are pushing back. Home surveillance systems are helping, providing us with high-quality photos. Online stolen property databases are also a great help. Once again, technology is providing us with ready access to photo, fingerprint, DNA and criminal record databases. Information that once took days to assemble can be in our hands in a matter of hours.
But even with these tools, the best defense against these crimes is an informed and observant citizenry. A few months back we held a community crime prevention open house to inform citizens about these kind of crimes and steps they can take to reduce the chance of it happening to them. I hope to see more of these in the coming months.
The result? Despite the pressure from drugs and a rising population of addicts, the rate of burglaries in Edmonds has remained fairly level over the past several years, largely thanks to an informed citizenry, better investigative tools and skilled people who know how to use them.
MEN: What about the recent shooting over by the Edmonds Elementary school yard?
Compaan: Again, this is a case where the investigation is still ongoing, so I can’t comment in great detail. The investigation is being conducted by the interdisciplinary SMART team, and I’m staying at arms length. Based on what I know, the officers fired only after a rifle was pointed at them, and that they acted appropriately.
MEN: Do you ever think about retirement?
Compaan: (laughing) All the time! But I’m just having too much fun, and the time is never right. It seems like this job is never really done…mentoring people, ongoing personnel issues, something always needs to be finished. And I love the people I work with. I’m so grateful and humble, I have to pinch myself regularly. They really run the place…I’m just here to guide the ship. I do hope that when it comes time for this old guy to move on, the folks here will tell me.
MEN: In closing, is there anything you’d like to say to the citizens of Edmonds?
Compaan: This is the greatest community anywhere. The support we get from the citizens of Edmonds is nothing short of fabulous, and I am continually humbled by it. But I know that this trust is not a given. And we intend to earn it every day by maintaining the highest standards of professionalism.
And never forget that we in law enforcement can’t do our jobs without strong citizen support. Every member of this community is a partner with us in ensuring our safety and security.
And you know, the little things are so important. So when you see a patrol car drive by, smile and wave at the officer…I guarantee it will help make his or her day to know that you acknowledge and appreciate the work being done.
– Story and photo by Larry Vogel