New chief a steady hand

EDMONDS — Al Compaan started his career at the Edmonds Police Department, and he planned to retire as the city’s assistant police chief.

A tragedy changed his plans.

Compaan was thrust into the role of acting chief in April after former Police Chief David Stern died from a brain aneurysm.

On Tuesday, Compaan, who started his law enforcement career 29 years ago in Edmonds, is expected to be confirmed by the City Council as the department’s next police chief.

“I was planning on continuing to work with Chief Stern, and I had every intention of at some point retiring as an assistant chief, because I knew Chief Stern was planning on continuing with the department for an indefinite period,” Compaan said. “This is just one of life’s turn of events that happened.”

Compaan, who lives in Snohomish County, has worked as a patrol officer, detective, corporal and sergeant since starting at the Edmonds Police Department in 1978.

Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson said Compaan’s institutional knowledge of the city is one of the reasons he was considered for police chief.

More important to Haakenson is how Compaan helped boost morale at the police department after Stern died.

“An event like Chief Stern’s passing could tear a department apart in a hurry, and he rallied them,” Haakenson said.

Compaan said he wants to carry on Stern’s goal to preserve the department’s status as a state-accredited agency. He wants to implement a new street-crimes unit that would focus on issues such as prostitution, burglaries and vehicle theft. He also wants to change the police department’s command structure to give more oversight to patrol and traffic officers.

It wasn’t easy becoming the police chief, especially given the circumstances, Compaan said. However, once he was named acting chief, he didn’t have time to be concerned.

“I think it just took some time for all of us just to go through the grieving process, and to go through the adjustment process,” Compaan said.

Compaan was born and raised in Seattle. At a young age, he was introduced to police work by a family friend who was a sergeant with the Seattle Police Department. He grew up watching “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” on television.

He graduated from the University of Washington and the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command. While in school, he often rode with police on patrol, and he completed an internship with the Seattle Police Department.

He has stayed in Edmonds because he enjoys the city’s small-town feel and the generous attitude of the people who live there.

After Stern died, the community flooded the police department with letters and cards expressing sympathy. Now, people are sending Compaan notes to say congratulations.

“In this day and age, I think it’s pretty extraordinary,” he said. “In a larger city, people just don’t pull together like I’ve seen it happen here, at least to the degree that we’ve experienced it.”

Reporter Scott Pesznecker: 425-339-3436 or

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