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A clean up service will deal with shooting aftermath to minimize community trauma

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When gun violence breaks out on public streets and sidewalks, who's responsible for cleaning up afterwards? Well, sometimes it's the victims' loved ones and neighbors. But should that work fall on them, and at what emotional cost? As Sammy Caiola reports, Philadelphia has just started a program to address this forgotten problem. And a note for listeners - this story contains descriptions of gun violence and its physical aftermath.

SAMMY CAIOLA, BYLINE: When she walked out of her house on June 24, 2022, Addie Dempsey immediately noticed the blood on the sidewalk. Her grandson had been shot and killed on the block the night before. Police had come and gone, but the blood was still there. Dempsey didn't want the neighborhood kids to see it.

ADDIE DEMPSEY: The neighbor across the street - he came over here and helped me - bleach, water. And I swept a lot of it on the side there, and I had swept that in the sewer.

CAIOLA: In Philadelphia, there have been more than 2,000 shootings a year since 2020. Many of these shootings happen in residential neighborhoods. Police usually arrive to collect evidence and then call the fire department to hose down the blood. There can also be bits of brain or other tissue. Firefighters call that a washdown. But sometimes family members and neighbors do the job themselves, even though it's traumatizing and possibly unsafe. Adam Geer is Philadelphia's public safety chief.

ADAM GEER: This is just a very obvious, visceral depiction of the trauma. It is the trauma in physical form.

CAIOLA: Geer spearheaded a pilot program that launched in April. It funds a professional service to clean blood and other biowaste off the streets.

GEER: Prior to this, that could just sit there as a reminder for everyone to walk by, and it is not normal.

CAIOLA: Geer believes Philly is the first U.S. city to create such a program. In some states, people whose loved ones are shot inside their homes can receive victims compensation to help hire a cleanup service. California, Florida and Georgia maintain directories of vetted companies that do that work. In Jackson County, Mo., the prosecutor's office has a special fund to repair bullet holes and other home damages after a shooting. But Lenore Anderson, with the nonprofit Alliance for Safety and Justice, says blood in the streets is something cities often fail to account for.

LENORE ANDERSON: It speaks directly to a broader pattern of disregard that many victims of violence, especially in urban communities of color, experience. Far too often, what we hear is victims feel like they're completely on their own.

CAIOLA: The American Bio Recovery Association formed in 1997 to set standards for companies dealing with biohazard risks at crime scenes. The association president, Thomas Licker, says the companies spend most of their time cleaning up suicides and homicides that occur indoors.

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

CAIOLA: He says that's because professional cleanup jobs are expensive, and local governments largely don't want to pay the often multi-thousand-dollar bills. Philadelphia has allocated half a million for the pilot's first year. Under the new protocol, police at a crime scene will radio in a request for professional cleanup. They'll stay there until the vendor arrives, and they're supposed to come within 90 minutes.

Tanya Sharpe is a professor of social work at the University of Toronto who studies homicide in Black communities. Sharpe says the cleanup crews will need training about how sensitive the work can be and how neighbors might react.

TANYA SHARPE: They're cleaning up somebody's child's blood matter, brain matter. And more than likely, family members and community members are present or watching. It not only calls for a responsibility for the city to provide the service, but it also says, how are we going about providing this service in a culturally responsive and caring way?

CAIOLA: Geer says that, in Philadelphia, they've held two trainings about community trauma for the new cleaning service. This program came too late for Addie Dempsey, who still lives on the street where her grandson was killed.

DEMPSEY: Police should call the people - let them know blood down there. If somebody have a gunshot, some - going to be some blood.

CAIOLA: Right now, the cleanup service is available in just one of the city's police districts, and it's not where Dempsey lives. Geer says he would like to expand it citywide in the future if the funding is there.

For NPR News, I'm Sammy Caiola in Philadelphia.

KELLY: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with KFF Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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