By MARK McDONALD & NOLAN ROSENKRANS
THE WORLD was a different place in November 1988, and so was Philadelphia.Ronald Reagan was still in the White House, and young Eagles' QB Randall Cunningham was winning the Bert Bell Trophy as the NFL's best player. Also in Philadelphia, the aftermath of the 1985 MOVE bombing on Osage Avenue still inflamed passions.That month, with hints of unrest over ownership of the MOVE house at 6221 Osage, including the involvement of up-and-coming civil-rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, city officials decided to place an around-the-clock police guard there.
That was more than 18 years ago.
Since then, there have been three successors to then-Mayor W, Wilson Goode, the city has paid millions in damages and for homes, and survivor Ramona Africa has been released from prison. The world has learned about the Internet, iPods, and Ryan Howard.But the round-the-clock police guard at 6221 Osage has stayed, at a cost to city taxpayers that has grown into the millions of dollars over time. This year alone, the city is paying roughly $400,000 for the full-time policing.
Yesterday, the Street administration said the 24/7 guard duty will be terminated - a decision that was disclosed just hours after a news report about the police detail aired on Fox 29 (WXTF)."The mayor has made this clear," a senior city official told the Daily News. The city is studying some type of ongoing cop presence there, officials said, but it will be greatly reduced - along the lines of checking the property once every eight-hour shift or so."I have asked the police commissioner to provide an alternative plan to the extent that there are security concerns at the house that don't involve a 24/7 presence, if he doesn't feel it is required," city Managing Director Pedro Ramos said yesterday.
Ramos admitted that he was not aware until this week's TV report that there still was a full-time police detail - which operates inside the furnished home - at the MOVE property.Officials stressed yesterday that the policing there - the equivalent of five full-time officers - is provided by the Civil Affairs Unit and does not involve officers from the 18th Police District, which has headquarters at 55th and Pine.Nevertheless, any cost savings from ending the around-the-clock unit ultimately could be diverted into fighting the city's skyrocketing murder rate, which is outpacing other large American cities.
Yesterday, a reporter who visited the former MOVE house found it better kept up than most of its boarded-up neighbors, but with little to indicate its police presence other than a sign outside reading, "Permit Parking for Phila. Police Civil Affairs."The property also functions as a maintenance building for the Redevelopment Authority, which stores hammers, nails, plywood, rakes, shears, shovels and even a snowblower there. The city bought the MOVE house and others nearby not long after cops dropped a bomb from a helicopter during a 1985 standoff between police and the radical group. The bomb killed 11 people and burned down 61 rowhouses.
Gerald Wayne Renfrow, president of the Osage-Pine Community Association and block captain, said he and other residents would be happy to see the police leave."I'm a taxpayer, too. I don't want the city spending more money to keep the cops here," he said.It was the involvement of Sharpton, who later became a 2004 Democratic candidate for president, that prompted the initial police presence in 1988.Louise James, the sister of the late MOVE founder John Africa, was agitating to retake ownership of the house from the city.She enlisted the New York-based Sharpton to help her in her efforts, and city officials - wary of more violence little more than three years after the bombing - grew concerned.James S. White, city managing director in 1988, said he ordered the police presence after meeting with Sharpton on Nov. 5, 1988."After my meeting with Reverend Sharpton, it raised some concerns in my mind," White told the Daily News at the time, adding that two full-time officers around the clock were "a precautionary measure."That precautionary measure has gone on for more than 18 years.
Neighborhood residents supported it at the time, according to Renfrow, but he said today that police presence is a reminder of an awful time they'd like to forget."Every day that we see the police there, we feel there is a threat that MOVE will come back," he said.Initially, according to the 1988 article, the operation cost about $4,000 a week, which would be more than $200,000 a year.Ironically, rising salaries and costs have doubled that expense today, even though staffing has been reduced.City officials couldn't estimate the cost over the life of the operation, although a conservative estimate using the lower of the figures would place the total cost as nearing $4 million, at a minimum.Ramos said yesterday there is some sentiment to keep a "close eye on the house given the long history of the house on that block."But he also said it's his judgment - along with the mayor and police commissioner - "that you don't need to continue to do so in the way that it's been done for many years."He said it's likely that electronics such as security cameras and alarms, as well as several daily check-ins by officers, could probably protect the property.