Amanda Hernandez, Stateline
January 10, 2024
Amid concerns about crime and public safety, at least two major U.S. cities recently considered banning ski masks or balaclavas to prevent criminal behavior, despite a lack of academic research about the effectiveness of such bans.
Last month, Philadelphia became the latest city to enact a ban in some public spaces, including parks, schools, day care centers, city-owned buildings and public transit. The ban comes with exceptions for working in cold weather, religious expression and activities such as protesting and playing winter sports.
The ban, introduced last June, came after a series of fatal shootings involving masked suspects.
“In Philadelphia, there’s been a siege of violence,” Democratic Philadelphia Councilmember Anthony Phillips, who sponsored and pushed for the ban, said in an interview with Stateline. “Ski masks are oftentimes the reason why there’s a lot of crime and lawlessness happening.”
Meanwhile, the Atlanta City Council considered a similar proposal but tabled it amid concerns about racial profiling and doubts over whether it would make a difference.
For some, ski masks are synonymous with criminal activity. Several cities and states already have blanket bans against masks that conceal one’s identity. The banned masks include ski masks, which cover all but one’s eyes, nose and mouth; balaclavas, which cover necks and the lower part of one’s face; and costume masks that might cover the whole face except the eyes.
While mask bans in some states, such as California and New York, date as far back as the 1800s, most states enacted their bans in the middle of the 20th century. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted some jurisdictions to temporarily suspend their bans, as many residents wore masks to protect themselves from the airborne virus. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 raised awareness about racial profiling by law enforcement.
“Anytime you make policy based on no research, that’s not a really good idea,” said Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Miami and former director of the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Crime and public safety are likely to figure prominently in the upcoming elections. Some experts expect politicians to implement ski mask bans and other measures to convince voters that they’re tough on crime — whether or not there is evidence to support such strategies.
“There’s this idea of running to a policy that seems to, quote-unquote, make sense, but to which there is no effectiveness,” Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Miami and former director of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, told Stateline.
“Anytime you make policy based on no research, that’s not a really good idea,” Piquero said.
Youth advocates say mask bans disproportionately target Black and brown youth, limit self-expression and may infringe on people’s constitutional rights.
“Banning ski masks doesn’t deter crime. It creates a new crime that people can be charged with. It creates a justification for police to stop a larger group of people,” said Vic Wiener, a staff attorney with the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group that represents children. “It creates a tremendous risk of harassment and more over-policing, especially of young Black people.”
Philadelphia’s ski mask ban
Phillips said Philadelphia’s ban will help police solve crimes and protect the city’s young people.
“This bill was not meant to profile anyone,” he told Stateline.
Those caught wearing ski masks in prohibited areas may face a $250 fine, while those wearing them during criminal activities could incur fines up to $2,000, in addition to other penalties. People will not be charged with a crime just for wearing a ski mask.
Some members of the Philadelphia Police Department have voiced support for the ban. Deputy Commissioner Francis Healy told a council committee last November that it’s unlikely officers will cite every person wearing a ski mask.
“It will give us a tool to intervene and hopefully stop some criminal activity from happening,” Healy told the committee. “It allows my officers to take some proactive action.”
Healy said the ban will give officers “lawful authority” to stop people, which will be helpful because under a yearslong monitoring agreement with the Pennsylvania ACLU, Philadelphia police must document every pedestrian stop and the legal reasoning behind it.
But Solomon Furious Worlds, an attorney with the Pennsylvania ACLU, told councilmembers before they voted on the measure in November that the ban “violates the spirit” of the ACLU’s monitoring agreement with the city. The agreement aims to address policing practices, such as stopping and frisking, that are applied disproportionately to Black and Hispanic youth.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that ski masks cause or encourage violent crime,” Worlds told councilmembers, according to a transcript. “If you’d like to address violent crime, I’d suggest housing, food assistance, child care, things like that.”
Worlds said that police officers might enforce the ban selectively, and that it “seems like another targeted attempt to get at young people of color.”
The Philadelphia Police Department is not yet enforcing the ban because the city has not reviewed the final legislation to determine how best to enforce it, according to Shawn Ritchie, a department spokesperson.
During the debate over the proposed ban, some Philadelphia councilmembers warned that it would poison relations between police and the community, and that it would increase stop-and-frisk interactions without reducing crime.
“If we demand that officers start policing people’s clothing and accessories, we will be causing more harm than good,” Councilmember Kendra Brooks of the Working Families Party wrote in an emailed statement. “[The ban] will further criminalize Black and brown youth in our city and will not meaningfully reduce violence or crime.”
New York City and the District of Columbia used to ban masks, but they repealed those ordinances in 2020 and 2023, respectively. New York City repealed its ban because it conflicted with pandemic-era mask mandates.
Last March, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, urged store owners to request that shoppers remove their masks, including surgical ones, before entering, as a precaution against robberies.
State masking laws
At least 15 states ban mask-wearing or outlaw it under certain circumstances, according to the Free Speech Center, a nonpartisan and nonprofit public policy center at Middle Tennessee State University.
Many states’ anti-mask laws ban the coverings if a wearer is using them to commit a crime, to infringe on others’ rights, to intimidate law enforcement and/or to evade arrest. Those states include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota and Ohio.
Some states, including Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia, allow exceptions for face coverings for medical reasons, part of a theatrical production, holiday costume, profession or while playing a sport.
New York approved its anti-mask law in 1845, becoming the first state to do so. Other states followed over the next century, in many cases to combat the terror inflicted by the Ku Klux Klan, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The District of Columbia’s mask law, which was repealed last April, was originally enacted in 1982 in response to anti-Black and anti-Jewish hate crimes committed by mask-wearing perpetrators.
Kristin Henning, a law professor and the director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law, opposed the District’s ban, and said it was ironic that a law designed to fight against racial terror was being applied against youth of color.
She successfully defended a teen who was stopped and tackled to the ground during an altercation with a police officer over wearing a ski mask, she said.
“Statutes like this increase the contact with police officers, but then you have to understand how these encounters go from zero to 100 — literally in an instant,” Henning said in an interview.
Mike Willis, a former police officer and the national training and program director with the United States Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said he doesn’t think ski mask bans will become a national trend. “I definitely see it as a safety issue for the public, Willis said in an interview. “Whether or not it’s going to deter a lot of crime, I can’t say that it will.”
Policing fashion and culture
For Jordan Williams, donning his balaclava serves as a fashion statement, protection against the cold and a shield against viruses and germs.
Williams, a 25-year-old Black man from the District of Columbia, understands why some are wary of people wearing ski masks. To avoid weird looks from others or being stereotyped, he said, he makes a point of taking it off when entering stores and other buildings. But he thinks mask bans are “kind of silly.”
“The thing about criminals is they don’t necessarily follow laws,” Williams said. “I don’t think it would really make a big difference.”
For many young adults and teens, wearing a ski mask or balaclava is primarily a nod to fashion trends. The cold-weather gear surged in popularity during the pandemic, propelled by Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty, who also lent the accessory its current moniker, a “shiesty.”
Clothing items and how they’re styled, such as hoodies, head wraps and baggy pants or jeans, have undergone similar bans or scrutiny, according to Henning, of Georgetown Law, whose book, “The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth,” examines how popular fashion and culture among Black youth has been politicized and then targeted by police.
“White children are allowed to enjoy the privileges of what it means to be a teenager,” Henning said. “Black children are often criminalized for everything that we know is important to adolescents. They are criminalized for all those — the music they listen to, the clothes they wear, the way they wear their hair.”
Henning pointed out that attire that can be linked to mass shootings, such as all-black clothing, or to white supremacist groups, such as combat boots with red laces, remains legal. What’s outlawed, instead, targets “fashion statements uniquely associated with Black culture.”
“We demonize attire when it’s associated with a certain subset of people that we want to exclude or make presumptions about,” Henning said.
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