Warning: The story contains references to suicide, sudden death, and assault, as well as graphic details of human remains.
By Sam Olley from rnz.co.nz
A New Zealand crime scene clean-up company used by public organizations has posted images of the aftermath of suspected suicides, suicide attempts, assaults, sudden deaths and domestic violence on social media.
In a photo posted to Crime Scene Cleaners’ Facebook and Instagram in 2020, a smiling staff member held a piece of human bone in front of the camera, after being called in to clean up a train that had hit and killed the person.
The caption read that the staff member was “very happy with his find”.
In September 2020, the company chose a photo of decomposing remains to be the page’s cover photo – the first thing people see when they go to a Facebook page.
Another photo of decomposing remains, posted last June, showed maggots eating leftover bodily fluids, with a caption describing “more delicious hungry maggots” and a later comment, “human remains for those big little beasts.”
The company launched its Facebook page in March 2019 and began posting scene photos in April 2020, with some garnering over 100 reactions, dozens of comments and shares. The Facebook page has more than 2000 subscribers, the Instagram has more than 5000.
RNZ chose not to repost the footage but, on Facebook alone, counted photos of the aftermath of 15 unattended deaths, two suspected suicides, five attempted suicides or self-harm, five assaults and three others assaults explicitly listed as domestic violence. , as well as two photos showing human remains being cleaned from trains.
The most recent was posted at the end of October and was a photo of a blood-splattered ceiling, with the caption indicating that it was the scene of a suicide.
Some photos showed identifying features of the properties and sometimes in the comments section below the company account listed the suburb or city and method or cause of death or imminent death, a possible violation coroner’s law. The Coroner’s Act prohibits people from publicly calling a death a suicide until a coroner has determined that the death was self-inflicted. It also prohibits people from publicizing the method of suicide.
Crime Scene Cleaning co-owner and director Carl Loader said graphic images of the scenes were released because it was a matter of “public awareness”.
The company is a sub-contractor to Auckland Ports and KiwiRail, and Auckland and Christchurch City Councils have confirmed they have also paid the company for the cleanup.
The Department of Justice confirmed that three payments were also made to the company, in 2017, through the victim assistance program.
Crime Scene Cleaners said in Facebook posts that New Zealand Police and the Department of Social Development had also paid for the cleanup, but those agencies would not confirm this to RNZ, instead declaring an Official Information Act request. – which can take up to 20 working days. – was necessary.
Crime scene cleaners helped clean up the Al Noor Mosque after the 2019 terror attacks, but Loader told RNZ the photos weren’t taken at the mosque because staff were told not to have phone on site.
Loader has 30 employees and cleanups often cost thousands of dollars.
He said 25% of his business came from private clients and the remaining 75% from publicly funded services and businesses or insurance claims.
When asked if the families linked to the trauma cleanup received permission before the photos were released, Loader said that for most family members “they wouldn’t know because they didn’t been on the scene”.
“They wouldn’t know what it was, what work it was.”
He said ‘there have been several occasions where people have given consent for them to be used’ but ‘that was a long time ago’.
In Loader’s view, the company’s social media posts weren’t “really heavy stuff.”
“We’re just putting the lighter work that we’re doing because putting something really bad out there would be detrimental to everyone,” he said.
Some people had commented on the photos, however, saying they were triggering.
Other online commenters wondered how disturbing photos appeared in their news feeds.
Loader said, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch”.
When told that such posts could appear on a Facebook user’s News Feed (unless the user has already blocked posts from the account or the user is under 18 ) even though he wasn’t following the account, he said he was sure Facebook was watching him.
“If it was something really bad, I’m sure Facebook or some other department would contact us,” he said.
After posting a few photos, the company commented below, criticizing caregivers, government departments and people connected to the cleanups carried out by the company.
A comment in November 2020 called the homeless “lazy ‘f******'”.
Another in June 2020 called some tenants “wild savages.”
When asked if such comments were appropriate, where the company has contracts with central and local government run organisations, Loader said: “We need to encourage public awareness of how we live”.
RNZ also asked if he thinks the company’s posts may have breached suppression laws and privacy policies during police and coroner’s investigations.
Although Loader said he wasn’t “really familiar” with what crime scene cleaners put on Facebook, he was confident police would “definitely know.”
“They didn’t tell me they were aware of it, but obviously they would, they would look into it.”
A woman told RNZ that she discovered photos of her father’s house on the Crime Scene Cleaners Facebook page last year.
He had a hoarding problem and when he died she had crime scene cleaners come in to empty his house.
She was billed over $10,000.
The woman said the house was “completely” identifiable in the photos – there were even photos of her as a daughter, on the fireplace, in the plans.
She said she never authorized any photos to be taken or posted, and there was no mention of the company using photos for marketing purposes in the business terms she signed and provided to RNZ.
When the house went on the market, people recognized the property from the photos online, she said.
She was already “incredibly stressed” mourning her father and planning his funeral, and the photos were “devastating on another level”.
She thought Loader’s argument – that families wouldn’t be able to identify photos linked to loved ones – was “bullshit”.
“It’s such a weak excuse to do something wrong. The photo shouldn’t be public anyway. You’re standing up for the helpless.”
Following questions from RNZ, KiwiRail reviewed the rail-related posts on the Crime Scene Cleaners Facebook page and called for their “immediate removal”.
A spokesperson for the public company said “permission will never be granted for the types of images they currently display” and KiwiRail told the company not to post anything without permission.
KiwiRail said it was assured by Crime Scene Cleaners that the posts had been removed.
The Mental Health Foundation’s chief executive, Shaun Robinson, was “absolutely stunned” to learn about the page and the posts.
He said images depicting scenes of suicide could encourage suicidality in others.
“I cannot understand any justification for [them] and he must stop immediately. This actually puts people at considerable risk. At the very least, it really traumatizes the people who have been affected by these tragedies.”
Her family used cleaning services after her brother took his own life.
“I would be horrified if photos of this were made public.”
Robinson said there were many other ways for the company to promote itself “without having to cross that line and into what is really traumatic and utterly unnecessary and disgusting imagery”.
He believed that publicly funded organizations, in particular, should rethink contracts with the company.
“Agencies need to think about the behavior of people in their supply chains.”
He was also concerned that the crime scene cleaners had violated the Coroners Act.
RNZ asked the Office of the Chief Coroner if it was aware of the posts and whether they breached any laws or policies.
Deputy Chief Coroner Anna Tutton said the office was “reviewing” whether the publication bans had been breached.
The Justice Department logo had been used on the Crime Scene Cleaner website, and Justice Department chief operating officer Carl Crafar said the department was unaware of this.
“They don’t have permission to use our logo. We’ll ask them to remove it.”
After being contacted by RNZ, Loader said he would review the Facebook posts.
The company temporarily deactivated its page for a weekend, then restored it last week, after removing some death-related posts and adding a new message that read: “Warning: some images may be graphic.”
The “about section” of the page reads: “No scene is too extreme! We are specialists in forensic decontamination and remediation.
In a statement to RNZ, a spokesperson for Facebook owner Meta said: “We add a warning label to particularly graphic or violent content so that it is not accessible to anyone under the age of 18 and that people are aware of the graphic of a violent nature before they click on it”.