Months after Philadelphia banned ski masks in public spaces, there is still no plan to enforce the new law

By | April 2, 2024

PHILADELPHIA – For Leem Washington, ski masks aren’t just a fashion accessory that protects his face from the biting cold of Philadelphia winters – they also prevent him from becoming a victim of mistaken identity.

“In Philly you have to choose your poison,” said 19-year-old Washington, noting that growing up in West Philadelphia, one of the most crime-ridden parts of the city, left him in a constant state of “paranoia.” . Ski masks, he said, are a form of protection against misidentification of a crime by police or retaliation by people seeking to settle a neighborhood crime.

Washington said he has lost several friends to gun violence and had run-ins with police that could have easily escalated, and he refuses to be another statistic.

“You either have to walk around and protect yourself or walk around and be a victim,” Washington, who is black, said.

That’s why, when the Philadelphia City Council late last year cited crime as a reason for banning ski masks or balaclavas in public spaces, many criminal justice advocates and young people like Washington objected to the new regulation.

Now, nearly four months after the controversial ban went into effect, police officers have yet to create a comprehensive plan to enforce it, according to local officials. The lack of clarity on the new regulations, which advocates say should reduce violence, has only deepened divisions over the ban, critics say.

“At some point we have to make bold decisions,” said Councilman Anthony Phillips, who first proposed the ban in June, adding that something had to be done to address what he sees as unchecked lawlessness in the city.

Anthony Phillips (Marchioness Francis/NBC News)

Anthony Phillips (Marchioness Francis/NBC News)

Phillips’ original bill listed at least three incidents in Philadelphia since 2021 in which gunmen wearing ski masks shot and killed people, including 15-year-old Devin Weedon, who was on his way to school in May when a fight fatally struck him shot. with three people. No one has been arrested or charged for the murder. The new law says people can be fined up to $250 for wearing ski masks in prohibited locations and $2,000 if masks are worn while committing crimes.

“This bill was created because we can’t just have no face and no trace,” Phillips said.

However, Phillips was unable to provide NBC News with data showing how the ban would reduce crime, and he did not have polling data supporting the ban’s popularity in the city. He said the new police chief has been tasked with prioritizing community policing efforts above all else.

“We still have some work to do,” Phillips acknowledged.

Saud Salahuddin and Leem Washington (Marquise Francis / NBC News)Saud Salahuddin and Leem Washington (Marquise Francis / NBC News)

Saud Salahuddin and Leem Washington (Marquise Francis / NBC News)

The Philadelphia Police Department declined to answer questions about enforcement of the ban, instead referring to their previous statements at a City Council hearing on Nov. 14, when Deputy Commissioner Francis Healy said the police department “examined the intent and rationale behind fully supports this regulation,” adding: “Enforcement can be complicated.”

‘A balaclava does not equal a crime’

Legal experts are questioning the constitutionality of the law overall, raising concerns about due process and selective enforcement under the 14th Amendment.

Solomon F. Worlds, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, called the ban a “dog whistle” used to stoke fear.

“A balaclava does not equal a crime,” Worlds said. “A store owner may feel safer, but he won’t be safer.”

Worlds said officers have yet to enforce the ban because it opens the police department to potential lawsuits that could further implicate it in an ongoing 2010 lawsuit. In Bailey v. City of Philadelphia, a federal class action lawsuit, the ACLU sued the city . on behalf of eight Black and Latino men, alleging a pattern of stopping and frisking thousands of people without legal justification and systemic racial bias in the city’s implementation of this practice. The police tactic, which dates back to 1968, was statistically unsuccessful in reducing crime and exposing guns in major cities across the country. Data later showed that young black and Latino men were overwhelmingly targeted.

In 2020, the city of Philadelphia admitted that the practice was a cause of racial inequality and “systemic racial bias,” according to court documents.

A growing number of businesses in Philadelphia, the nation’s sixth-largest city, have signs on their glass doors that read “No Ski Masks Allowed” or stickers with an “X” through an image of a ski mask. Residents and business owners who support the law say the ban makes them feel safer because it removes the threat of facial disguising that makes them uncomfortable.

However, critics of the ban reject the idea that it will do anything to reduce crime in the city. Teens and young people who wear ski masks say they wear them for a variety of reasons, from protection from the cold to fashion and, in the most extreme cases, survival.

Philadelphia resident Jared Cooper, 24, says he regularly wears a ski mask to protect his face from the wind while skateboarding or just to be in his own world. He called the ban “a joke.”

“It’s just set up to make people feel like they’re doing something so they can neglect the responsibility they need to take to actually change Philadelphia,” said Cooper, a youth advocate for the nonprofit Youth Art & Self. -empowerment Project, which fights to end youth incarceration.

Washington was one of several teens who spoke out against the ban at a hearing in November, saying it was important to have a voice in the conversation that, in his opinion, was being left out. He warns against drawing a direct link between ski masks and crime.

“Not everyone who wears a balaclava is out to put it on [someone] in danger,” he said. “The person wearing a ski mask may be in danger, that’s why he or she is wearing a ski mask. You don’t want to be seen in certain places or you want to be seen by certain people.

“Would you rather have them carry ski masks, or would you rather have them carry around a firearm?” he added.

A spate of deadly, high-profile shootings last month put the city on edge, but overall, violent crime in Philadelphia was down across the board last year compared to the previous year, while property crime rose significantly, city data show. And so far in 2024, through April 1, there have been 70 homicides, a 34% drop from last year. (Not all murders are crimes.)

Cara McClellan, director of the Advocacy for Racial and Civil Justice Clinic and associate professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, called the ban a “distraction” that criminalizes behavior rather than reducing violence through a research-based approach. .

More than a dozen states have their own version of ski mask bans, according to the Free Speech Center, a nonpartisan educational center at Middle Tennessee State University dedicated to increasing understanding of the First Amendment. However, any evidence that ski mask bans reduce crime remains elusive.

In Atlanta, a proposed ban on ski masks was shot down in the city council due to opposition from residents.

Philadelphia Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, one of only two City Council members to vote against the ban, said the law leaves too many “what ifs” up to the discretion of police that could cause more harm to a community . then protect it.

Kendra Brooks (Marchioness Francis / NBC News)Kendra Brooks (Marchioness Francis / NBC News)

Kendra Brooks (Marchioness Francis / NBC News)

“I come from the stop-and-frisk generation and I’m still traumatized by it,” Brooks said. He said the ban appears to prioritize the safety of one group over another.

“We are creating a situation where some of the people feel safer and some of the people are pushed into unsafe situations out of fear,” she said. “Whose fear is more important?”

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said she was initially going to vote in favor of the ban until she heard teenagers speaking out against it.

“I couldn’t bear to hear young people who are like my son talking about how this ban would make this a tougher city for them,” she said. “We need police to focus on the most productive activities, not criminalize people for their fashion choices.”

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