“Let The Fire Burn” and Police in 1983 and Today

Last night I saw a documentary about the 1985 conflict in Philadelphia against the “Move” organization which featured a shootout and finally a helicopter dropping a bomb on a fortified building and 60+ row houses in a heavily populated city leveled by fire. The documentary was called “Let the Fire Burn” and it was primarily based on archival video from an inquest that the city of Philadelphia had after the sad incident, vintage news footage that was “live” at the time, and videotaped depositions of the survivors.

One angle that I found intriguing is the relative lack of sophistication of the police in 1985. Prior to the 1985 bomb incident, there was a 1978 incident where “Move” supporters were involved in a firefight with police where a policeman was killed and many others were shot. When police captured one of the “Move” members that surrendered, they beat him up on camera, in what was likely one of the first incidents filmed in this manner (the police were found not guilty). Thus during the 1985 incident, the Philadelphia police were heavily armed and on their highest guard when it came time to attack the “Move” compound.

“Move” built a bunker on the roof of a row house, apparently out of wood but reinforced with metal, with firing ports to command the street. When the police attacked, they used a water gun from a firetruck, but it wasn’t powerful enough to knock the bunkers off the roof.

At one point the police ran out of ammunition. During this siege they fired over 10,000 rounds into the house. A local news segment shows a county policeman showing up with a trunk full of ammo that is distributed to the police, in order to replenish their supply.

After giving up on randomly shooting into the building, and noting that the fire hose wasn’t working, they decided to drop explosives on the roof with a helicopter. The explosives didn’t blow up the bunkers. However, after 15 or so minutes, the building started to catch on fire until finally there were flames shooting ten stories tall (per a local news account). The title of the film “Let the Fire Burn” alluded to the supposed order (disputed by many) to let the fire burn in order to remove that bunker from the roof where the “Move” supporters could have fired on police. In the end, the entire building went up in flames and then 60+ buildings were burned.

It is interesting to consider how different this could have turned out in 2013. The police likely have many modern war veterans in their ranks who would be accomplished shooters (the modern war brought the sniper back to the fore) and could have likely picked off the “Move” supporters had they shown themselves anywhere without shooting 10,000 rounds to no avail. There are other ways to break into / destroy a fortified location, especially given that the order to storm the “Move” HQ was given in advance and they had time to prepare. The police are full of veterans who have stormed into heavy buildings and cleared them of enemies, basically “street fighting” experts.

The police accounts depicted in the documentary are often contradictory; no automatic weapons were found in the “Move” HQ and yet it seems that the original shots fired came from automatic weapons, implying that the police may have inadvertently started the shooting war.

I hope that a situation like this wouldn’t occur nowadays but I am confident that the police have the means to deal with an armed and fortified opponent, or could call in resources that could do this. By comparison the 1985 police in Philadelphia look outmatched by a simple bunker and a few older rifles. To fight them, the Philadelphia police ended up using the oldest of weapons, fire.

Cross posted at LITGM

19 thoughts on ““Let The Fire Burn” and Police in 1983 and Today”

  1. The Move incident was a debacle. You have to wonder why the police didn’t simply clear the area and wait the barricaded people out. I think that the lesson you seem to be drawing, that the police would do better to be better armed and trained for urban battles, is precisely the wrong lesson.

  2. The first Move incident in ’78 was in the days of the infamous Mayor Frank Rizzo.
    His blanket policy for dealing with crime was “Spacco il Capo” – bust their heads

  3. I lived only a few blocks away from the Move Compound at that time.
    Although I haven’t seen the documentary to which you refer, it doesn’t seem as if it has properly depicted the situation.
    The MOVE Compound was the result of inaction by the proper authorities, if anything. The members of MOVE were black and they lived in a middle-class black neighborhood. Over time, they harassed the neighbors in any way possible, who complained repeatedly to the city, to no avail. In time, they had virtual command of the neighborhood, and even an occasional police visit had no affect.
    When the final showdown occurred in May of ’85, the police tried the water hose approach because of the reports of children in the compound. But the fire department, claiming to be shot at, refused to continue the water approach.
    Lastly, it was Mayor Wilson Goode’s (Philadelphia’s first black mayor) decision to drop the “incendiary device” upon the compound.

    Of course, once the neighborhood was burned down, it was rebuilt at taxpayer expense. And, of course, that was a whole ‘nother boondoggle.

  4. I wasn’t really advocating any sort of approach to a hostage situation.

    I was struck by how amateurish the cops were in this heavy weapons situation. They fired ammo indiscriminately, ran out of ammo, and then had to burn the whole neighborhood down. Just dropping c4 from a helicopter was nuts… In the previous encounters it wasn’t certain who fired first and there were many rumors that the police themselves were hit in their own crossfire.

    I think in general the marksmanship and fire control have improved in heavy weapons situation and believe that they could do a much more efficient job of killing these people today than in 1985.

    As to whether or not this approach makes any sense, that isn’t something that I can really opine on. You need to see the movie to understand how nuts these MOVE people were, and they already had an armed standoff once before.

    As far as trusting the Chicago police, they did well during NATO that’s for sure. Likely trust depends on what neighborhood you are in. In the heart of the city the police do a good job and are on the lookout. In the bad neighborhoods, that likely is a different story, but then again the individuals in that neighborhood area likely aren’t cooperating with the police anyways so that problem is multi faceted.

  5. In 1985 you would likely have police who were Vietnam veterans, so basic arms knowledge shouldn’t be lacking. Keeping the MOVE members barricaded in the building and waiting them out, while likely the best choice, doesn’t play well on TV or if opinion is you have to do ‘something’ now.

  6. 1985 – I was overseas then, but working in AFRTS news – and also had an awesome number of subscriptions to news and cultural publications – and I recall what Anthony does about MOVE – that they were hardcore radical and driving their neighbors absolutely frantic. It seemed to me then that the Philly police were stuck; damned if they did something about MOVE, and damned if they didn’t… but everyone agreed that dropping a bomb which burned down the whole block was excessive…

  7. Carl,

    See also:


    “Eyewitness accounts strongly suggest that MBTA Transit Police Officer Richard H. Donohue Jr. was shot and nearly killed by a fellow officer in Watertown April 19 during the hail of gunfire unleashed on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the suspected terrorist made a getaway in a carjacked sport utility vehicle,”

  8. If a target is too hard for the police, you call in the guard, period. Turning the police into paramilitary organizations is not the solution.

  9. Carl,

    They fired ammo indiscriminately, ran out of ammo, and then had to burn the whole neighborhood down.

    “Had to”? That can’t be what you mean, can it?

    I understand your point about how dangerous it was for the cops to be in over their heads when dealing with MOVE. But the solution to a standoff like this is not for local police to be primed for urban siege warfare, it’s to avoid paramilitary tactics in the first place, unless one is dealing with actual professional terrorists, which the MOVE folks clearly were not.

    In those cases where a SWAT style assault is truly necessary, it’s in everyone’s interest for them to be properly trained and equipped. But situations that actually require that kind of response are extremely rare.

    It’s already far too common for local PDs to don riot gear, kick down the door, and shoot the dog in search of a few ounces of weed (or tomatoes). If we continue to blur the line between law enforcement and war fighting, we’re going to get a de-facto state of martial law, everywhere and all the time.

  10. Always tons of anecdote regarding the po-lice and their misadventures. I’d sure like a thorough rehashing of the Move characters, and all their assorted fellow travelers who remain remarkably long-lived. Particularly these days, now that many have ascended to the highest levels. Mebbe that six-degree of separation game would be appropriate.

  11. The police and military have different roles. Military use force to defeat or destroy external enemies, under time pressure and with relatively little concern for third parties. Police maintain domestic order, using force only to protect life and in some cases property, and with a great deal of concern for third parties because third parties are the people the police are protecting. In cases like Move and Waco there is no time pressure unless the barricaded troublemakers are threatening/harming hostages or other third parties. So why the urgency to resolve the situation by force?

    My impression, which may be wrong, is that since the Waco debacle many police agencies have made an effort to resolve situations involving barricaded troublemakers with as little force as necessary. At the same time police have become even more armed and militarized than they were in the ’90s. I am guessing that to the extent there are fewer debacles nowadays it’s more because the police try to avoid them than because they are better armed and trained.

  12. I’m generally a supporter of the police, but the proliferation of militarized units like SWAT teams is not a good thing. As Setbit says, in the vast majority of cases they simply are overkill (pun intended). Simply surrounding a place and waiting seems like the best option in many cases, yet it seems to rarely happen. My own take on this is that if these units are formed in just about every jurisdiction and given military equipment (tanks in some cases) and cursory training, there is a great temptation to justify their existence and use them, even when other approaches make more sense. As the saying goes, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

    If there were fewer SWAT teams made up of really highly trained personnel, I would be more supportive, as there are rare situations that warrant their use. I know someone well who was on a police SWAT team. He was an Army SF sniper and a firearms instructor for units preparing to deploy to Iraq. He was highly qualified, but many of his team’s members were not.

  13. Trent Telenko beat me to this. The Tsarnaev brother incident proved pretty well that the police really aren’t trained at all to carry on any real sort of urban warfare. Can you imagine that happening in Texas or in some rural area in the Midwest? Me neither, since the citizens would have shot them dead in short order.

  14. For those whose stomach and blood-pressure can handle the stress, there are plenty of stories collected here and here. Notice that some of them involve regulatory agencies like the IRS, EPA, or other even the Department of Education.

    It’s appalling how utterly unconcerned some public safety officials are with actual public safety. “Protect and serve” isn’t even on the menu, having been replaced by an unapologetically military midset. The whole point of catching the bad guys is supposed to be to protect the rest of us, but that is largely or completely lost on some of these wanna-be warlords.

  15. “The Tsarnaev brother incident”: whatever happened about the FBI assassinating some bloke they were interrogating about the brothers? Has it just been swept under the carpet?

  16. There have been well over a hundred FBI shooting since 1993 and all of them were justified according to their internal investigations. If you believe that, there is a beautiful bridge that I can sell you.


    My own suspicion is that they are corrupt like most other government agencies. Because they can be. This what happens to institutions not held accountable.

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