A tragedy in Philadelphia

THAT was quite an eviction notice the City of Philadelphia sent the radical group MOVE this week: The upshot included a devastating shoot-out with police; the helicopter bombing of a row house occupied by a cult which led to a fire destroying an entire neighborhood of some 60 homes; and -- as of this writing -- reports of fatalities. Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode contends that it would be erroneous to ``second guess'' what happened in the shoot-out. For his part, the mayor accepted responsibility for the tragedy. All the same, one would be hard pressed not to conclude that the city used clearly excessive force. In contrast to what happened in Philadelphia, police in nearby Chester, Pa., raided another house occupied by MOVE. In the Chester situation -- although there was admittedly no indication of a violent altercation, as in Philadelphia -- police gained entry to the house after using tear gas. No guns were reportedly fired. No one was injured. No houses were destroyed.

Granted, this is not the first time MOVE has caused difficulty in Philadelphia. MOVE is a radical, ``back-to-earth'' movement that is predominantly black. The group was involved in an earlier shoot-out with Philadelphia police back in 1978 at another west side house. After a lengthy blockade, gunfire also erupted, resulting in the death of one police officer and the arrest and subsequent murder convictions of nine MOVE members.

It was the immediate neighbors of MOVE at this new location who had been urging the police to take some action against the group. Neighbors complained of unsanitary living conditions. The house itself had been turned into a fortress. The alleged justification for dropping the bomb from a police helicopter was to open up a metal bunker on top of the house so that police could fire more tear gas canisters into the building. Ironically, the city official who reportedly coordinated the police siege is a retired Army major general who served two terms in Vietnam.

The Philadelphia shoot-out is unfortunate. It puts a cloud on the performance of Mayor Goode, the city's first black mayor. It raises new questions about the conduct of the city's police department. The department has come under fire in recent years for allegations of corruption and violations of civil liberties. And, in fact, a number of Philadelphia police have been convicted on racketeering and corruption charges in recent years.

Perhaps most seriously, the incident comes after a decade or so in which police departments around the United States have gone out of their way to improve their image and conduct regarding minority neighborhoods.

Most police departments have sought to defuse just such potentially explosive neighborhood and civil rights conflicts. At the least, police have have sought to contain -- not escalate -- violence.

It seems difficult indeed to justify what happened in Philadelphia this week.

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