SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become the norm to wear facial coverings in public to lower the odds of spreading the virus.
However, until recently, wearing masks that concealed a person’s identity was a misdemeanor offense in Georgia.
Gov. Brian Kemp declared a temporary pandemic exemption for the state law on April 13, allowing Georgians to protect themselves and each other by wearing masks during the outbreak.
As some continue to don surgical masks, N95 respirators or homemade face protection when they leave home, people on the wrong side of the law are taking full advantage of the opportunity to blend in.
“That in and of itself has created a secondary problem and challenge for law enforcement to identify those people who may be in the process of committing crimes and identifying them at a later date,” crime expert and former Savannah Police Department major Gerry Long told WSAV.com NOW.
Several cities and states across the country have reported robberies and other crimes involving crooks wearing masks that appear at first glance to be COVID-19 protection.
Both the Savannah and Chatham County police departments have sent out news releases within the past couple of months featuring robbery suspects whose faces are mostly hidden behind surgical masks.
“I think it’s very convenient for them,” Chatham County Police Department Chief Jeff Hadley told WSAV.com NOW. “Under normal circumstances, pre-COVID-19, if you walked into an establishment with a mask on, people would take notice, they’d kind of raise their eyebrows.”
Hadley says one of the department’s recent investigations involves a mask-wearing armed robbery suspect who shot and “severely injured” a gas station clerk.
“It’s an opportunity for those that have ill intent to walk in a little bit more unnoticed than they would’ve before, and have a face covering and do harm,” Hadley said.
“That’s unfortunate that someone would take advantage during a time like this to do that,” he added.
Despite the use of COVID-19 masks by some criminals, officials with the Savannah and Chatham County police departments say haven’t noticed a rise in crimes committed by people wearing face coverings locally.
The Chatham County Police Department actually reports a recent decrease in overall crimes committed, including robberies.
Identifying a mask-wearing suspect: What to look for
“When a person wears a face mask during the pandemic, as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it makes it more difficult for a victim, whether an individual or a business owner, to lock into what that person looks like,” Long said. “So, you have to look at alternatives.”
Hadley adds that it’s crucial to be “very careful” with eyewitness identification, as it’s not 100% accurate.
Beyond height, weight and ethnicity, there are some key features a person can point out on a mask-wearing suspect that could help law enforcement authorities identify them.
“Anything that has a lot of specificity,” Hadley said. “Whether it be that they were wearing a Boston Red Sox hat, or the type of shoes — were they Nike or Jordans — something that just isn’t as generic.”
A description of a person wearing blue jeans, a black shirt and a belt could fit just about anyone, Hadley said, and wouldn’t do much to assist the police.
More specific identifiers include scars, tattoos or marks on their arms, legs, neck or forehead.
Other questions to think about: “How do they wear their hair? What is their clothing? Is there anything unique? Are they wearing a unique watch, are they wearing an unusual ring or bracelet?” Long shared.
She says people don’t typically throw away their clothes, so while they might not be wearing the same outfit in which they committed the crime, investigators can still take note of that description if a search warrant is later issued.
Savannah Police Department public information coordinator Bianca Johnson says other helpful things to look out for include how they walk — for example, if they have a limp — as well as if the suspect speaks with an accent or has unusual speech patterns.
“They can also look for other things, like if the person has a possible accomplice, a description of a vehicle, if applicable, and what hand they held their weapon in,” Johnson said.