How criminals are using face masks to their advantage
But not all of them.
This week, officers from the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) caught a criminal who had outstanding warrants of arrest during a routine patrol in Soweto.
“Upon searching the three occupants, we asked them to remove the masks so that we could see them and one of them was a wanted criminal with two outstanding warrants of arrest for house robberies and possession of a stolen motor vehicle,” JMPD spokesperson Superintendent Wayne Minnaar said.
Children haven't been so lucky, said Teddy Bear Clinic director Shaheda Omar - in every one of the testimonies she shared with the Saturday Star of child abuse during lockdown, the perpetrator wore a mask.
A 12-year-old boy told the clinic: “It is very difficult to identify attackers with masks. I could only see the eyes. I am very scared of anyone wearing a mask because they remind me of people that hurt.”
An 8-year-old girl wrote: “I am scared of people with masks. I can't recognise them, especially the men and because it is winter, they wear hats and a mask. This makes it even more difficult to know who they are. Sometimes, even the security guard at the school scares me because of the mask. It reminds me of kidnappers in the movies.”
Another 12-year-old girl said: “I panic when I see people with masks. I feel they are going to rob me, hurt me or assault me again.”
It was a sentiment echoed by a child rape survivor: “I could not see him. I could only see the eyes. I couldn't see the face, and I couldn't even hear him. I am afraid of all people with masks.”
It's difficult for traumatised children to testify in non-lockdown conditions - and provide compelling evidence - now though it was even more difficult, said Omar.
“The prosecution has to look for corroborating evidence and for collateral sources of information. Now, with the mask issue, people will have to work harder. Sexual predators will now use this opportunity by wearing their masks, and it will give them a strong defence when they are caught. It will create doubt.
“The fact that all South Africans have to wear a mask definitely makes identifying perpetrators more difficult,” national marketing and communications manager at Fidelity ADT Charnel Hattingh explained.
Beagle Watch Armed Response agreed that face masks have definitely been a boon for criminals. Beagle general manager Andre Aiton said: “Robberies pre-Covid, a guy would never ever be using a mask. Now the criminal is seen as a responsible person when he jumps out the car to do a robbery and he/she does have a mask on his face, so it’s working to his/her benefit.”
Other law enforcement officers have noted how the wearing of face masks is making CCTV surveillance problematic, especially when it comes to identifying suspects.
“The masks can cause confusion, especially at shopping centres for CCTV as it's difficult to see the suspect's face,” the Glenvista Police Forum (CPF) said.
“In a recent housebreaking incident in Germiston, the perpetrators were wearing masks which made it difficult to identify them on camera,” Hattingh added.
But, there's nothing for police and security officers to do in the face of the growing pandemic, except to change their tactics.
“Wearing face masks has its challenges, but it is a requirement for everyone. So JMPD has to learn to deal with criminals or suspects who are wearing them,” said Minnaar.
The Glenvista CPF added that while they have occasionally struggled to identify criminals who are wearing face masks, they consider this measure to be for the greater good of society.
It's not so easy for Omar and others protecting children.
“The important thing for law enforcement and prosecutors is that they can't be lazy anymore. They are going to have to work much harder. DNA processes needs to be fast tracked,” she said.
“In the past, children's evidence has always been viewed with caution. Now, defence attorneys can easily use these discrepancies in their stories, and as a result, an alleged perpetrator can be acquitted or the case can be dismissed.
“It's a no-win situation. The mask that was supposed to protect you against a deadly virus, has actually hurt you more and created secondary trauma.
“This is something law enforcement, justice, and civil society and government need to talk about urgently.
"We need to be aware of it. There needs to be additional provisions made in ensuring people will go the extra mile to gather more information to investigate deeper. On different levels people have to come to the party to ensure the best interests of the victims come first and ensure justice is served,” Omar said.