Police chief marks milestoneAl Compaan celebrates 35 years on Edmonds force
Somewhere at the bottom of the Strait of Juan de Fuca is the gun an Edmonds man used to shoot his father to death.
Following the shooting in the early 1990s, the suspect tossed the weapon overboard while fleeing on the Black Ball ferry to Victoria.
Upon his arrival there, customs officials became suspicious while questioning him, and he led them on a foot chase before being captured.
Those are among the details Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan recalls from those heady days when he was a detective on the Edmonds force.
Compaan was several years into his law enforcement career, having advanced from Patrolman 3rd Class when he was hired in 1978 to Senior Patrolman to Detective to Sergeant.
He would soon rise to Assistant Chief, become Acting Chief upon the untimely death in 2007 of the late Chief David Stern, followed by his appointment to the department’s top post later that year.
Meeting the youthful-looking Compaan today, a visitor could be forgiven for doubting he had just marked his 35th year on the Edmonds force – the only officer in the department’s history to achieve that milestone.
His road to this point began as a child in south Seattle when he became fascinated with the work of a family friend who was a Seattle Police sergeant.
Compaan went on some ride-alongs – an opportunity that would never be permitted a child today due to safety concerns – and, upon enrollment at the University of Washington, entered the Criminal Justice program.
Following graduation in the mid-‘70s, he found himself in a competitive job market.
Veterans returning from Vietnam were among many looking for work in law enforcement.
In addition, it was the era of civil rights, and law agencies were heavily recruiting minorities and women.
When Compaan tested the first time, he found himself in UW’s cavernous Kane Hall with about 800 other job applicants. He didn’t get called.
But following a second test in a Quonset hut at Paine Field – also with hundreds of others – Compaan got that coveted phone call. It was the Edmonds Police Department.
On his first day, Compaan was given his badge, nightstick, gun and other equipment by Sgt. Art Wyatt, who would become a mentor and friend.
Wyatt, now retired and living in Edmonds, said he realized Compaan would go far.
“I was impressed with his professionalism, his approach to the job,” Wyatt said this week. “He had good judgment and was a hard worker.
“Within a year or two, I figured he’d be chief someday.”
Wyatt praised Compaan’s UW education. “I recognized it prepared him for the job.”
One thing the UW did not do, however, was teach Compaan how to type, Wyatt said.
A two-finger typist, Compaan “was always behind on his paperwork,” Wyatt said. “Almost every shift, he’d work over for an hour or two to catch up.
“But he never asked for overtime.”
Compaan and Wyatt became detectives around the same time, a period both remember fondly.
Wyatt recalled that prosecutors spotted Compaan’s professionalism, sometimes using it to their advantage when cases made their way to court.
“On some important cases, the prosecutors used to have him come in and sit beside them in court,” Wyatt said.
“He was so professional, you’d think he was an attorney.”
Mayor Dave Earling echoed that sentiment Tuesday when Chief Compaan was honored at the City Council meeting.
“He has exuded professionalism as long as I’ve known him,” Earling said. “And I’ve known him a long time.”
Compaan, while enjoying detective work, also saw some of the downsides of law enforcement.
“I can remember getting frustrated with the prosecuting attorney’s office if they didn’t see a case as I did,” Compaan said.
“Wyatt said to me, ‘Al, your problem is you’re under the mistaken impression you’re accomplishing something.’”
But Compaan thrived on detective work, recalling the aforementioned shooting incident in particular.
He hopped on the Black Ball to interview the suspect – the longest interview he ever conducted – dealt with extradition and other hurdles, and brought the suspect back to face justice.
He remains in Western State Hospital to this day.
Detective work agreed with Compaan.
“It was very rewarding, to get a fingerprint match, recover property, help somebody who had been assaulted. Those were all neat things,” Compaan said.
But it wasn’t always fun.
“Crimes where children are victims are the hardest,” he said.
“We’ve had cases where the children were killed. Those you don’t forget.”
Tall and fit, the chief has an easy laugh and casual demeanor.
That, along with his youthful good looks, helped get him noticed by a young woman when he and Wyatt visited the Bellevue Police Department where she worked.
Anne Compaan said she heard that two Edmonds detectives were coming by, so she was curious.
“My ears perked up because I was living in Edmonds at the time,” she said.
According to Al, Wyatt looked like the Clint Eastwood type, while his future wife thought he looked too young to be a detective.
“He’s told that story before,” Wyatt laughed. “I wasn’t really the Dirty Harry type.”
Later, Anne joined the Edmonds department, becoming the former chief’s executive assistant.
A romance bloomed between Al and Anne, and the couple recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.
Of course, when Al became chief, he had to “fire” his wife.
Being married to a police officer, Anne knows his can be a dangerous job.
But she doesn’t dwell on it.
“It’s probably a little different for me, because I’ve been in law enforcement,” she said. “We’ve both tried to make the most out of each day.”
Al said a police officer’s spouse puts up with a lot, including changing work schedules and serving as a sounding board.
“What I have come to appreciate and understand is how important a spouse is in an officer doing well,” he said.
Anne said people who don’t know her husband well may not see his best traits.
“It sounds like a cliché, but he’s a people person, a bit different from what people think,” she said. “He has a fabulous sense of humor. He’s young at heart.
“And he’s kind. I’ve noticed that in his relationships with other people. He has a lot of long-term friendships.”
While both are still working – and content – they are starting to talk about retirement.
Now 57, Al was eligible to retire at 53.
“There are other things I want to do,” he said. “Volunteer work, maybe with organizations that have some nexus with justice.”
They’d also like to travel, spend more time with family and friends.
When that day does come, Al Compaan may think more about his legacy.
For now, he said, “I want to leave this place in good order, knowing that the public has confidence in us and what we do.”