After homicides, area residents are left with bloody reminders

August 08, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

The grim reminders of deadly violence haunt Baltimore's most crime-torn neighborhoods.

Long after police officers and rescue workers have left a crime scene, the bloody aftermath stains streets, sidewalks, even playgrounds. And in a city that had a record 353 homicides last year, the lack of a citywide cleanup policy is getting on the nerves of some residents.

"Why did they not clean that up?" an angry Diane Mickey asked recently, as her two young children played on a blood-stained East Baltimore playground -- the day after two men were shot and killed there.

"Every time someone walks past it, it just brings back bad memories. When you see a patch of blood just lying there, the kids think it's OK to do it again."

City and state officials say the blood does not pose a health threat. But some residents complain about the psychological impact on neighborhoods -- especially on the children who live there.

"The kids see it, and it's not good for them," said Andre Mines, standing near the scene of a recent homicide at the corner of Greenmount Avenue and East Eager Street. "The blood is there so much that it is just like coming and going. A person sees it, and it ain't nothing to them anymore. It's sad."

At times, Baltimore's fire trucks are dispatched to clean up a homicide scene, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres.

Paramedic crews dispose of the medical equipment used at the scene of an accident or a crime, placing the waste in drums in each ambulance.

But city police and fire officials say there is no policy mandating cleanups at crime scenes. In most cases, residents must live with bloody reminders long after the bodies are hauled away.

Cleaning up crime scenes also is a problem in other cities with high homicide rates, say police in Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia.

Often, the cleanup is handled by family members, property owners or residents, using a garden hose or a bleach solution, say police officials in those cities. In Los Angeles, homicide detectives sometimes hose down a murder scene before returning to the station, said Officer Lorie Taylor, a department spokeswoman.

"Most people take it on them selves," said Officer Ben Frazier, a spokesman for the Philadelphia police department. "I've seen crime scenes where as soon as we leave, the residents are out there washing it away."

Health experts say the bloody waste left behind on Baltimore's streets poses little risk to the community through exposure to the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome or to hepatitis.

Dick Dunning, the city health department's director of disease control, said exposure to the sun wipes out most bacteria in blood. Because of the gruesome nature of crime scenes, most people tend to stay away, he added.

"The chance of infections is none," he said. "Unless somebody just goes and does something stupid like get their hands in the blood."

Diane Dwyer, an epidemiologist for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, agreed.

"The risks of having that in the street are not that high. For any disease to be transmitted, you need to be exposed," she said. "The blood or tissue needs to get into or under the skin. That can only happen when there is a cut on the skin."

But the problems stemming from a bloody crime scene may be more psychological than physical.

"A bloody crime scene is an ongoing reminder of crime in the neighborhood and a threat to [children's] personal safety," said Mark D. Weist, a University of Maryland psychologist who directs the School Mental Health Program for the UM Department of Psychiatry.

"It's a cumulative impact," said Dr. Weist, who serves as a therapist at Southwestern High School and has encountered many Baltimore children traumatized by neighborhood violence. "Many children meet formal diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder based on exposure to violence.

"That disorder has been associated with war veterans. Children have nightmares, are constantly on the lookout, they monitor their environment for threats and have difficulty separating from family members."

"There is a pervasive feeling of vulnerability that at any moment something violent can and will happen," Dr. Weist said.

One Parkville couple has offered a solution to the cleanup problem.

Ray and Louise Barnes, who started Crime Scene Clean Up Services seven months ago, charge between $240 and $600.

Wearing latex gloves, face masks and protective clothing, they have cleaned houses, apartments and a hotel room after 10 deaths in the Baltimore area, driving the waste away in their steel-lined black van.

Mr. Barnes, a 32-year-old forensic investigator with the state medical examiner's office, said his experiences on the job -- and a lack of similar cleanup services -- led him and his wife to open the business.

"People ask us how we do this sort of thing," he said. "But I don't get emotionally involved on the job. We don't know the people, they are not family members, and we look at it as being there to perform a service."

In Baltimore's violent neighborhoods, residents can't be so detached. Several East Baltimoreans recently recalled the feelings they had when they walked past "the blood on the corner" after Mark Hammock was murdered in front of a small neighborhood grocery store at Lanvale Street and North Patterson Park Avenue.

"It wasn't pleasant," said Joyce Hairston, who has an 10-year-old daughter. "The kids were scared to even go down the street.

"It's terrible. It makes you want to leave this part of town."

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