Even if "fully successful," a police assault that resulted in 11 deaths and 61 destroyed homes last May "would not have in fact solved the problem" created by the radical group MOVE in a west Philadelphia neighborhood, Mayor W. Wilson Goode testified today.
Appearing before the commission he appointed to investigate the incident, Goode said the assault would have at best resulted in arrest of five adult MOVE members, on whom arrest warrants were outstanding, and court orders placing children from MOVE's row house in protective custody.
Goode said other group members would have been free to stay in the row house or move back into it after any police action.
Testifying for 70 minutes in the fourth day of hearings, Goode said it is "very difficult using the law" to "evict people and take control" of a "structure where the taxes are paid and where we did not see sufficient code violations to declare it unfit for human habitation."
The mayor said that, soon after he took office in January 1984, he adopted a "conscious" hands-off policy toward citizen complaints about harassment from MOVE members and their alleged violations of health, housing and safety codes.
"I did not want to risk . . . pushing any button that would result in any loss of innocent life or property," he said in calm, measured tones.
The bodies of seven adults and four children were pulled from the wrecked MOVE house after police dropped a bomb on its roof May 13. In the ensuing fire that blazed out of control for five hours, 61 houses were destroyed.
Earlier today, several city officials testified that they allowed complaints from MOVE's neighbors to pile up and did not move to halt members' construction of a rooftop bunker of railroad ties and tree trunks as neighborhood tension mounted.
Witnesses said official documentation of problems at the MOVE compound was so sparse as a result of the hands-off policy that, when officials finally decided to move in early May, they had to rely on newspaper reports about the neighborhood's problems.
James White, formerly head of the department of licensing and inspection and now city managing director, said the policy was aimed at avoiding a confrontation similar to one in 1978 that resulted in the shooting death of a policeman.
Several commission members expressed indignation about the policy.
Henry Ruth, a former Watergate special prosecutor, asked, "Was this a house above the law?"
Bruce Kauffman, a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, said that if the city had blocked construction of the rooftop bunker "we wouldn't be here today."
Later, Kauffman said, "MOVE literally ground the bureaucracy of the city of Philadelphia to a grinding halt."
"We seem to have two standards -- one for MOVE members and one for the rest of us who happened to be law-abiding citizens," commission Chairman William H. Brown II said to White.
"That's right, sir," White replied.
Goode recounted dealings with MOVE dating to his days as city managing director when the group lobbied him to, as he put it, "do your duty as a black man" and secure release of nine MOVE members jailed after the police officer's death in the 1978 confrontation.
Goode said concern about a similar confrontation pervaded his administration's dealings with MOVE and led him to adopt "an evolving" hands-off policy begun when he was managing director under Bill Green, his predecessor as mayor.
Goode said he was "very sympathetic and concerned" about MOVE neighbors' complaints about obscenities shouted from a loudspeaker atop the rat- and insect-infested row house but told them he would not act until he had a "very well-thought-out" plan.
How that came to include a daylong siege, shootout and bombing in a once-quiet, middle-class neighborhood is the central question the panel plans to continue exploring. As early as June 1984, Goode said, he explored the legality of evictions but was cautioned by Justice Department officials "to be very careful not to be involved in any civil rights violations."
He called his hands-off policy "a very sound one," saying MOVE presented "an extremely dangerous, explosive situation that required very delicate handling with the potential for a loss of life."