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Picking Up the Pieces

After a violent crime or bloody trauma, specialists must be called in to sanitize the scene.

November 01, 2004  |  by Neil Weiss

To Refer or Not to Refer

Most families and property owners faced with the prospect of cleaning up a crime scene have no idea of where to turn. They need advice. The question is, should cops give that advice and how do they make suggestions without crossing the line into recommending a service?

Some states have recently addressed the crime scene cleanup issue as part of a program of victim counseling.

In New Jersey, for example, once the crime scene is cleared by detectives, a counselor from the Office of Victim Witness Advocacy (VWA) takes over to assist the family. The counselors are very aware that cleaning up the carnage is often a high priority.

Counselors can't endorse a particular company, but Bobbie DeLaRoi, unit supervisor for Burlington County's VWA, does provide a list of companies that serve the local area. "If the family does not want to go back in the house and asks us to call someone for them, we will take care of it," adds DeLaRoi. "But they have to specifically ask for assistance."

The families of victims in New Jersey are fortunate to have people like DeLaRoi to help them. In nearby Philadelphia, the rules against recommending a commercial enterprise are much stricter.

This policy exists because the department once had a bad experience with a trauma scene entrepreneur. In the mid-'90s, a Philly officer started her own trauma scene cleanup company, and it didn't win her any points with the department's commanders. She was accused of conflict of interest because she would leave her brochures in the mailboxes of families after hearing about events over the police radio.

Today, the officers of the Philadelphia Police Department must be very careful about the advice they offer families that need crime scene cleanup services. According to Philadelphia officer Ken Stinson, when family members of victims ask who they can call to help clean up a mess, they might be given a cryptic answer like, "You can find companies in the yellow pages" or Why don't you check online?"

Under department guidelines, a Philadelphia PD officer may advise family members that some companies' advertisements specify that they handle crime or trauma scenes. Or recommend that the family ask the funeral home, insurance company, or medical examiner's office-but the interaction is often a delicate dance.

John Tyler, COO of Crime Scene Clean-Up, recommends that officers follow the lead of counselors like DeLaRoi. He says that departments would be doing a public service to create a small brochure, rack card, or even just a sheet of paper that answers survivor questions and lists local companies that perform cleanup services. He urges officers to include at least three to five companies to ensure there is no appearance of impropriety.

"Hopefully, the same thing will happen with us that happened with the towing industry," says Tyler. "The police used to refer companies, but they got into trouble with lawsuits. Now companies are registered and it's more official."

Helping the Cleaners

Tyler says he doesn't mind that officers are leery of recommending a specific service. However, there is one courtesy he requests from officers: information.

Unfortunately for crime scene cleaners, cops are not very forthcoming. They often resist spending even a few moments discussing the scene with cleanup teams.

The kind of information that Tyler and his colleagues seek is not privileged. For example, they'd like to know if during the investigation an officer touched a blood source with a gloved hand and then touched a light switch or drawer handle as part of that investigation with the same hand.

"It helps if they tell us where they have touched, just so we can make sure we clean everything properly," says Tyler. "We are not trying to inhibit them, we just want to know as much information as possible so we can do our job to the best of our ability."

Tyler adds that sometimes the materials that the investigators leave behind at a crime scene can do serious damage to property. And it would help if cops would let cleaners know where tools like fingerprint dust and blue Luminol dye have been used. These materials can seep into porous and lacquered surfaces, staining them forever.

Neil Weiss is the associate publisher of Limousine and Chauffered Transportation magazine, a Bobit Business Media publication. This is his first contribution to POLICE magazine. 

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