This is the second article in a series for National Police Week
“You do something right and you pay for it the rest of your life … I’ll get my peace when I die.”
—James Berghaier, February 2014
Today marks the 31st anniversary of the incident that caused Philadelphia to be known as “The City that Bombed Itself.” On May 13th, 1985, after years of escalating confrontations between the MOVE Organization, the police, and other residents of the neighborhood they lived in, the Philadelphia Police Department attempted to arrest and evict the 7 adults and 6 children residing in a fortified rowhouse on Osage Avenue.
It remains in dispute which side started shooting first, but by the end of the day police had fired more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and laid siege to the house with tear gas and water canons. These actions still failed to gain entry to the house or force its residents to surrender. At 5:30 PM, the Philadelphia PD, using a helicopter provided by the Pennsylvania State Police, and explosives from the FBI, dropped a bomb onto the roof of the house. As the fire raged out of control, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner ordered the fire department to “let the fire burn.”
When the fire was finally over, 5 MOVE members and 6 of their children were dead, 62 houses had been destroyed, and 250 residents were displaced.
Officer James Berghaier was standing in the alley where the only two people who survived the fire emerged from the house. One of them was Michael Moses Ward, then known as Birdie Africa, a 13-year-old boy so malnourished that officers on the scene thought he was only 8 years old. He fell and hit his head as he tried to climb over a fence behind the burning house. Despite warnings from his fellow officers that it was a trap, Berghaier ran up to the house and pulled the boy to safety.
In his testimony before the special commission appointed to investigate the bombing, Berghaier recalled, “I’m going to get the kid…I just didn’t want to let that kid lay there like that.” In stark contrast to the hardnosed and unrepentant testimony of other police officers, he spoke about his concern for the children inside the house, and how he thought of his own children during the incident.
After his testimony, Berghaier’s colleagues wrote, “nigger lover” on his locker. They derisively referred to him as “Birdie Berghaier” and also used other insults. He retired from the force in 1987 with a disability pension for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The City of Philadelphia was found to have used excessive force and violated MOVE’s rights with unreasonable search and seizure, and paid more than $4 million to survivors and relatives of the deceased in various lawsuits. Over $45 million was spent on settlements to Osage Avenue residents, and on rebuilding and repairing homes that were ultimately condemned due to shoddy construction.
Don’t forget to share your stories about “good cops” behaving badly using the hashtags of #NPW16 and #NationalPoliceWeek.