In my first month at The Trace, I wrote about my experience with a growing problem in Philadelphia: As shootings increased, more residents were left responsible for cleaning up the blood. I recalled the traumatic and painful day that my mother had to wash a man’s blood off of her steps after saving his life. My mother, who didn’t know about all the organizations that exist to help survivors in the city, wound up cleaning by hand.

I wrote about this to introduce myself to our community. I soon learned how widespread the problem is. Nearly a year after starting my job as community engagement reporter, Samantha Caiola, a gun violence reporter for WHYY at the time, told me about a group of residents and community organizers who work with the city’s Office of Anti-Violence Partnership to advocate for crime scene cleanup assistance. Caiola said that their efforts, as well as my story, motivated her to look into Philly’s crime scene cleanup process. 

I’m revisiting this issue now, in the early days of the city’s crime scene cleanup initiative pilot. Together, our experiences and reporting contributed to the city’s response, showing the power of collective storytelling — but for months, there’s been uncertainty and unanswered questions about exactly how it would work and whom it would serve. 


My conversation with Caiola in September 2023 was eye-opening and emotional as we shared accounts of the people we’ve met who’ve been faced with cleaning up their loved ones’ blood.  “When I found your story, I was already starting to club away at this topic,” Caiola told me. “Then I thought about what happened to your family and I was like wow, I actually know somebody whose loved ones had to go through this.”

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Like many others, Caiola said she hadn’t thought about that aspect of the aftermath of shootings. She learned about the Office of Anti-Violence Partnership through its 2021 report, “Blood on Our Hands.” The lack of a consistent cleanup policy, the group wrote, “is a public health issue, and contributes to exacerbating social inequalities.” Every crime scene, the report continued, exposes communities to biohazards like Hepatitis B and C. Solving this issue could decrease trauma, health risks, and financial woes, because costs for professional cleanups range from $2,000 to $20,000 — and not all insurance policies cover it.

There was one public option for seeking funding for crime scene cleanup, embedded in Pennsylvania’s victims compensation program, which offers up to $500. As of 2021, that number hadn’t changed in 22 years.

Typically, after a violent incident occurs outside, the Police Department will ask the Fire Department to wash down the area, said Adara Combs, executive director of Philadelphia’s Office of the Victim Advocate, but that process wasn’t formalized. “The Fire Department has a different set of tasks,” said Combs. “Sometimes the call is not made, unfortunately.”  

Indeed, in Caiola’s news report, we learned that the Fire Department was unable to provide a log or account of how many cleanups they’ve performed. “There were just crime scenes that were left completely untouched because the Fire Department couldn’t get out,” said Adam Geer, Philadelphia’s chief public safety director. 

Keeping an Eye on the City’s Response

Since our stories and AVP’s report were published, the city began to roll out its response, albeit slowly. In November, the city posted an announcement of a new crime scene cleanup program, but it was vague and pointed to WHYY’s coverage. As Caiola reported, the program would launch in Philly’s 25th and 26th police districts, serving Kensington and Port Richmond. And initially, the city said it planned to launch that fall.

But between then and now, the city elected a new mayor, Cherelle Parker, and got a new police commissioner in Kevin J. Bethel. Neither have said much about crime scene cleanup, and a lot can get lost in any administrative shuffle.

After months of trying to figure out what was happening with this program, The Trace finally got some answers. The Office of the Victim Advocate manages the pilot cleanup program in partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department. Combs, who runs the Office of the Victim Advocate, said there’s now a detailed plan that includes training sessions for police officers and using an experienced professional cleaning agency that can outsource work if needed. The city will test the program in one neighborhood, Kensington, in the 25th district, before expanding. 

The Office of Violence of Prevention confirmed that the program went live on April 1. Detectives are supposed to notify police about biological waste at any crime scene, which should trigger a call to Advanced-Edge Solutions of Middle Atlantic Incorporated. Advanced-Edge already provides cleanup services for Police Department cars, and COVID sanitation services. 

Combs said they’re starting in Kensington because of the area’s greater needs. It’s where, she said, they could “gather the most insights to improve the program as we expand, but that is definitely not where we intend to stop.” First, the program will expand within the East Division, focusing on the Police Department’s 24th district, which includes Port Richmond and Juniata; up next will be Fishtown and the surrounding neighborhoods within the 26th district.

“We want to collect as much information as we can and improve the program,” said Combs. “So we’re not rolling something out to the entire city that’s not quite ready.”

While exploring the topic of crime scene cleanup, I learned that it’s not only especially meaningful to me or my family. Heather Arias, who previously worked for AVP, is helping manage the program as deputy director of the Office of the Victim Advocate.  “I … assisted with the creation of the data collection of that crime scene cleanup report,” said Arias. “This is very personal to me and it goes back some time.” 

Arias said that the launch is a full-circle moment, and it feels the same for me, too. Still, while the pilot has promise, we’ll keep a close eye on whether officers are held accountable for implementing it, and how and when the city expands it. Any single cleanup that occurs is a good thing, but until the program reaches all of Philly, so many people will still be stuck wiping away the hazardous materials that result from their darkest days.