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After gun violence, who cleans up the street? Philadelphia takes on a traumatic task

Law enforcement gather at the scene of a fatal shooting in Philadelphia on April 28, 2023.
Matt Rourke
Law enforcement gather at the scene of a fatal shooting in Philadelphia on April 28, 2023.

Next month marks two years since Addie Dempsey's grandson, Raheem Hargust, was killed during a shoot-out on her South Philadelphia block. He was 36, and a frequent visitor to his grandma's house.

The night of Hargust's death, police came to collect evidence, remove the body and speak with neighbors, Dempsey said. But when she walked out of her house the following morning, there was still blood on the sidewalk where Hargust's body had been.

"I seen it and I had to get it up," said Dempsey, 76.

As gun violence escalates in certain U.S. cities, the death toll has overshadowed an issue that is rarely discussed or acknowledged: many shootings leave behind violent and grisly messes, in public places, and city agencies don't always handle clean-up quickly or sensitively. Sometimes a victim's relatives or neighbors do it themselves, which can add to their grief, shock and feelings of abandonment.

Bucknell Street, where Dempsey has lived for three decades, is a block where people know each other – children ride bikes in the afternoons while adults chat on folding chairs or stoops.

Dempsey wanted to clean the blood up before the neighborhood children saw it.

"The kids, it might mess with their minds," she said.

A neighbor across the street helped Dempsey clean – they used bleach, water and brooms. The memories of that morning are still vivid for her.

"A whole lot of stuff be on your mind, especially when you're looking at blood. You get nervous," she said. "I had to go to therapy. It helped."

The nonprofit Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia called for change in a 2021 report entitled "Blood On Our Hands."

"Survivors already experience trauma that affects their physical, psychological, social, and economic well-being," the report said. "The added responsibility of navigating and cleaning up loved ones' remains then compounds trauma."

Professional service will pilot cleanup in one neighborhood

When a shooting leaves blood on streets, sidewalks or squares, the role of Philadelphia police officers is limited to collecting any forensic evidence they may need. After that, they typically call in the Philadelphia Fire Department.

Firefighters use their hoses to wash away any blood, brain matter or other remains, according to city personnel.

When the fire department doesn't come, or takes a while to arrive, neighbors sometimes take on the job themselves, according to interviews with residents and community advocates.

Philadelphia recently decided to try a new approach. On April 1, the city started paying a professional cleanup company to remove blood and other bio-waste from sidewalks, parks or other public places after a shooting or other violence has occurred.

The city has seen more than 2,000 fatal and nonfatal shootings every year since 2020, according to Philadelphia's Office of the Controller.

Philly had the second-highest number of murders nationally in 2023, behind only Chicago, according to an analysis by criminal justice data firm AH Datalytics.

In 2021, advocates held a discussion about crime scene cleanup at a Philadelphia city council meeting. It was that meeting – and Dempsey's experience following her grandson's death – that alerted Adam Geer, now Philadelphia's Chief Public Safety Director, to the problem.

"Someone made a complaint that after this horrible murder that occurred on the sidewalks in Philadelphia, that the grandma was out there the next day with her neighbors, with literally water and bleach and buckets, trying to clean up the aftermath," he said. "We were horrified, frankly, that our citizens were doing this work."

So far, the city has allocated $500,000 for one year of a pilot program. Leaders want to track the pilot's outcomes and costs before deciding whether to expand it, Geer said.

The program is operating in just one of Philadelphia's 21 districts. The pilot district is in the Kensington neighborhood – selected because it has one of the highest shooting rates in the city.

Pilot program uses professional clean-up firm

Under the new protocol, police officers arriving after a shooting will wait until the supervisor on site is done collecting evidence. The supervisor will then call the dispatch center to request a cleanup. Dispatchers will then notify the vendor, Advant-Edge Solutions of Middle Atlantic, Inc, who must send clean-up workers to the site within 90 minutes per their contract, according to the city.

Philadelphia may be the first city in the country to hire biohazard professionals to handle the aftermath of crime scenes, said Geer, who tried to research if other cities were taking this approach.

"There were certainly some jurisdictions which looked at cleaning crime scenes inside the home, which presents a whole other host of problems," he said. "We wanted to focus on what we could easily manage as a city, on public property...we did our research and discovered that there really wasn't a roadmap for this."

In some states, when victims are shot inside the home, their relatives can apply for state funding to help hire a cleanup service. California, Florida and Georgia maintain directories of vetted companies who do this work, so that victims don't have to do the research themselves.

In Jackson County, Missouri, the prosecutors' office maintains a special fund to help repair bullet holes and other home damages after a shooting.

Few cleanup companies are working on outdoor shootings

But when it comes to shootings on the street, most cities rely on the fire department to handle it, according to Thomas Licker, president of the American Bio Recovery Association. The group formed in 1997 to set professional safety standards for companies that work with hazardous substances during crime scene cleanup.

Most companies in the association are focused on handling the aftermath of suicides and homicides that occur indoors, according to Licker.

"Rarely have we been involved with any type of outdoor incident or in a public place where the first responders don't come in and just hose everything down and then walk away," he said. "We're not getting that work."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers special trainingfor people who may be exposed to bloodborne pathogens on the job. Blood, even when dried, carries some risk of pathogens such as hepatitis, according to research from Yale University and other guidance.

Though the risk of disease spread is fairly small, the emotional hazards that residents incur when they take on blood clean-up are enormous, according to service providers and advocates.

And the failure of cities and counties to provide cleanup service after shootings is just part of a "broader pattern of disregard" for victims of violence, especially in communities of color, according to Lenore Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Safety and Justice.

"Far too often what we hear is victims feel like they're completely on their own," she said. "This is just one egregious example of that."

After a shooting, residents haunted by memories

Reuben Jones, a gun violence prevention advocate in Philadelphia, has talked to multiple neighbors and business owners who've had to clean up blood in his North Philly neighborhood.

The city should have addressed the issue a long time ago, he said.

"It's the signal that our lives really don't matter, it's the signal that the powers that be really don't care about us and the loss of life," Jones said. "It's a signal that our trauma doesn't count for much."

Residents who handle blood sometimes relive that memory for months and years following the incident, according to Tanya Sharpe, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto who studies the impact of homicide in Black communities.

"They can't erase the smell of blood from their memory," she said. "The frequency at which we are experiencing and seeing blood and remains of individuals is so frequent in our communities that you don't necessarily have a chance to reposition yourself, to deal with the trauma and exposure."

Any city considering new ways to handle post-shooting cleanup should insist that the cleaning crews receive education about the potential trauma they may cause to community members while working at those scenes, Sharpe said.

"Family members and community members are present or watching," she said. "It not only calls for a responsibility for the city to provide the service, but it also says 'How are we going about providing the service in a culturally responsive and caring way?'"

If the pilot phase goes well in Philadelphia, the city may expand it to other neighborhoods. The city might also consider working with residents to undertake more robust beautification efforts in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence, such as removing litter and commissioning murals.

"We want them to know that this is just our commitment to really dealing with the trauma as a policy, and we don't intend to stop here," said Adam Geer.

On Bucknell Street, Addie Dempsey is getting ready to bring her chair onto the sidewalk and watch over the neighborhood as the weather warms. She'll greet her surviving children and grandchildren when they visit her there.

She expects it will be another summer punctuated by gunfire, but is hopeful the city will take its promise to aid with cleanup seriously.

Her Point Breeze neighborhood is about seven miles from Kensington, the pilot site for the new program. But she ultimately sees it as the city's responsibility to get professional cleaners in when shootings occur.

"The police should call the people, and let 'em know there's blood down there," she said. "Somebody heard a gunshot, there's gonna be some blood."

This story comes from NPR's health reporting partnership with KFF Health News.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sammy Caiola
[Copyright 2024 NPR]