Posted on April 7, 2024

Months After Philadelphia Banned Ski Masks in Public Spaces, There’s Still No Plan to Enforce the New Law

Marquise Francis, NBC, April 2, 2024

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

“In Philly, you have to pick your poison,” said Washington, 19, noting that growing up in West Philadelphia, one of the most crime-plagued parts of the city, has left him in a constant state of “paranoia.” Ski masks, he said, are a form of protection from being wrongly identified for a crime by police or retaliation from people looking to settle a neighborhood vendetta.

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


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

Now, nearly four months after the contentious ban became law, police officers have yet to put together a comprehensive plan to enforce it, according to local officials. The lack of clarity about the new regulation, which advocates argue is supposed to reduce violence, has only worsened division over the ban, critics say.

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

Phillips’ original bill noted 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 he was fatally shot during a fight with three people. No one has been arrested or charged in the killing. 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.


Legal experts question the constitutionality of the law altogether, raising concerns around 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 ski mask doesn’t equal crime,” Worlds said. “A store owner might feel safer, but they won’t be safer.”

Worlds said officers have yet to enforce the ban because it opens the police department to potential litigation that could further implicate it in an ongoing lawsuit dating to 2010. 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 of systemic racial bias in the city’s execution of the practice. The policing tactic, dating to 1968, was statistically unsuccessful in reducing crime and uncovering weapons in major cities across the country. Data later revealed that young Black and Latino men were overwhelmingly targeted.


Critics of the ban, however, balk at the notion that it will do anything to reduce crime in the city. Teenagers and young people who wear ski masks say they wear them for a host of reasons — from protection against the cold to fashion to, in most extreme cases, survival.


Philadelphia at-large council member Kendra Brooks, one of just two members of the City Council to vote against the ban, said the law has too many “what-ifs” left up to the discretion of police that could do more harm to a community than protect it.

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

“We’re creating a situation where a subset of folks feel safer and another subset of folks are pushed into unsafe situations in fear,” she said. “Whose fear is more important?”