PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In the days after Patricia Norris was murdered in her West Oak Lane home, her family was busy planning the unexpected funeral, and investigators had finished collecting evidence. But no one told the Norris family what they’d find when they came back to the house to collect Patricia’s belongings.
Renee Norris-Jones, Patricia’s sister, stepped into the basement, shocked to see blood still on the walls. She remembers crying and thinking: My God, the police were just here with the yellow tape. They don’t clean this stuff up?
That was 22 years ago. Patricia — whom family called “Tricie” — was killed by her husband in a murder-suicide. So for Norris-Jones, herself a survivor of intimate-partner violence, seeing the aftermath was “trauma on top of trauma.”
The image remains seared in her memory.
“To know that that was the flesh of my flesh, that was my sister there?” said Norris-Jones, now 63, of Philadelphia. “You can’t forget that.”
Two decades later, the protocols for what happens after police collect evidence at a homicide scene remain largely the same. If the shooting occurs on a sidewalk or city street, the Fire Department may clean the area. But if it took place inside or outside a private home or vehicle, cleanup and repair are up to whomever is responsible for that property. In many cases that means the victim’s family, biological or chosen.
And so as rates of gun violence soar, more Philadelphians each year find themselves in situations like the one Norris-Jones did decades ago. That can mean turning a corner to come upon a gruesome scene with no warning. Or it can be the kin of a homicide victim getting a call from police to retrieve a car with an interior covered in blood. Those responsible for the cleanup expose themselves to potentially hazardous material, then have to live with what they saw.
Today, there’s a burgeoning effort to push the city to both take responsibility for cleaning homicide scenes before families see them, and to train police in having trauma-informed communications with families.
Top brass at the department are on board with finding a solution, according to Philadelphia Police Director of Forensic Science Michael Garvey, who said during a recent hearing of City Council’s Committee on Public Safety that there’s no police policy related to crime-scene cleanup after a homicide. He called it “a critical problem area.”
“So many people don’t realize what crime scenes look like, and what it looks like after we leave,” he said. “And that is the reality that so many people have to deal with after we’re finished processing. We leave, and they’re left to clean up.”
The setup in Philadelphia is not unique, according to the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that last month released a report offering solutions to address crime-scene cleanup in the city. The group couldn’t find examples elsewhere of government programs that ensure families of homicide victims aren’t forced to clean up scenes themselves.
There are private companies that perform biohazard remediation, but services can cost thousands of dollars. Oftentimes families don’t know they exist, or loved ones are in a state of shock and unable to research options.
Anntwinette Dupree-Hart told Council that her aunt and uncle, Florence “Tina” Finney-Pompey and Raymond Finney, were murdered in 2017, and another uncle remains traumatized after scrubbing the scene by hand.
She said it was something her family should have never had to contemplate: “The idea of Googling crime-scene cleanup companies still shakes me to my core.”
“No family is emotionally prepared to clean up a murder scene,” she said. “Not one.”
Sam Margolius, a therapist at the Anti-Violence Partnership, said many families of homicide victims can’t afford remediation alongside other unexpected expenses like medical bills or funeral costs. Firms in Philadelphia told The Inquirer their services for homicide-scene cleanup start at $3,000 to $5,000, as special training and equipment are needed to dispose of hazardous material.
Some homeowners insurance policies cover the costs, and renters insurance may pay for damage to property, said James McArthur, the owner of Bio-One Philly, a trauma-scene decontamination business. But he said many clients had opted out of crime-scene cleanup coverage when they bought their policy, sometimes unknowingly, or because they thought they’d never need it.
In Pennsylvania, the state-run Crime Victims Compensation Assistance Program exists to reimburse families of crime victims for unexpected expenses including medical bills and counseling, with a maximum award of $35,000. But under state law, it can provide only up to $500 to cover crime-scene cleanup costs (New Jersey has a $4,000 cap for those expenses).
Margolius said fronting the costs of biohazard remediation, then waiting for reimbursement, is untenable for many Philadelphia families of gun-violence victims, who disproportionately experience high rates of poverty.
“Right now a survivor would have to, in the most immediate shock on the worst day of their life,” he said, “know that crime-scene cleanup companies exist, they’d have to research, call and describe the scene, they’d have to keep all of the receipts, and then wait a year (to be reimbursed).”
And even that $500 reimbursement is far from guaranteed. Kathy Buckley, director of the Office of Victims’ Services at the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency, said the commission receives, on average, 12,500 claims per year for support from the program.
Over the last five years, 710 claims sought reimbursement for cleanup costs. Statewide, just 39 were granted, and of those, nine were to Philadelphia families.
Buckley said claims can be denied because they don’t fall within the narrow scope of the Crime Victims Act, which allows for reimbursement only if the scene was inside a private residence. Property damage isn’t covered, nor are vehicles.
Ideally, Margolius said, families wouldn’t be responsible for cleanup at all. The Anti-Violence Partnership offered a handful of policy recommendations to city officials, including:
— Publish information about crime-scene cleanup companies on city websites.
— Develop trauma-informed and culturally sensitive training for police to improve communications with the families of victims.
— Pilot a program in which the city assumes the responsibility for cleanup, either by creating its own biohazard remediation team, or by contracting with private companies to do the same. The group estimated a cleanup response pilot program for homicide scenes in eight city zip codes hardest hit by gun violence would cost between $497,500 and $796,000 annually.
Such programs might have relieved a small part of the trauma Trina Singleton has experienced since September 2016, when her son Darryl was fatally shot a day before his 25th birthday. He had been enrolled in school to become an emergency medical technician, and the last time his family saw him, he was helping his kindergarten-age brother with homework, reminding him to listen to his mother.
Singleton said the night Darryl was killed, police had left, and no one told family members what to do with the nightmarish scene that remained outside the South Philadelphia home. And so another family member hosed down the driveway.
Today, Darryl’s case remains unsolved, and Singleton still wonders if her family might have inadvertently washed away evidence. She wishes someone would have given her more information about what to do in the immediate aftermath of losing her son.
“It is inhumane,” she said. “There’s just far too many trauma points with situations like these. And I think the city can do better.”