Security and Policing in a Masked World

The difficulties of keeping things safe when everyone is disguised.

I recently had the opportunity to write a piece for Michael Smerconish’s website. If you don’t know Michael, he’s a national radio host based in Philadelphia who made the transition to Sirius XM Radio who prides himself on civility and being a centrist. Here’s that piece:

The Coronavirus pandemic has given rise to a number of challenges for security and police officials. The lockdowns that began in March in the United States brought with them unique and unforeseen challenges: the absence of eyewitnesses roaming the streets, over-extended first responders, and empty stores and institutions created a heightened sense of risk.

In fact, just days after the lockdown began, a thief broke into the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands and made off with a Van Gogh valued in the millions. The painting is still missing.

More than five months into the COVID era, a new paradigm in everyday life has emerged, and police and security professionals responsible for public places face another complex challenge: the requirement that everyone wear a mask.

It's a strange new world. Just a few months back, if you tried to enter a bank or a museum dressed like you were about to rob a stagecoach, every bell and whistle would go off. You would be required to remove the mask or directed to leave. The police would be called. An investigation would likely be initiated.

Now, if you aren't dressed as a bandit--complete with a bandanna hiding your identity-- when you enter a public building, you're not welcome. Security officers are now trained to ask anyone whose face, or even just whose nose, they can plainly see to leave. It's a frightful but very real problem being faced not just in the United States but around the world.

Aside from increased vigilance and deterrence, there's little that can be done to remedy it. Additional personnel can help, but the economic consequences of shutdowns have led to less staffing, not more.

So while cameras and video recordings are still important forensic tools to determine how a crime might have happened, their usefulness in identifying perpetrators has been greatly diminished.

Security operations must ensure that exterior cameras are sufficient in number, quality, and focus to identify vehicles used by suspects, because now that getting a solid face shot is really no longer an option, other identifiers must be optimized.

Masks have implications for policing as well. While a recent Gallup poll indicates a very strong appreciation for law enforcement across the nation (with 81 percent of Black Americans saying they want the same or an increased level of police on patrol in their communities), news media stories of distrust between officers and the people they serve have raised the stakes for each police interaction.

Can the introduction of barriers that block facial non-verbals make situations that are already often contentious and tense even more stressful? And might this lead to an increased risk of an encounter that ends in violence? The answer, fortunately, appears to be no.

A veteran officer working in a major metropolitan area with whom I spoke recently said that he hasn't found face-masks to be a barrier to establishing trust with those he's encountered.

Perhaps his most interesting observation about the pandemic is that when people become confrontational, he finds that they tend to pull down their masks. Perhaps by habit, they reflexively remove any barrier to being heard. So, unlike in a heist situation, individuals may actually become easier to identify as conflict escalates.

The seasoned officer also told me that while masks can potentially cause some difficulty, he relies on his years of practice reading the body language of the subjects he meets. "Much of it is experience based," he told me. "When you look at someone, it isn't just the face. It is the hands. Where are they? Are they looking at their feet? Are they standing still, relaxed, or in a defensive or even offensive position?"

He said that he has found that subjects under stress might unconsciously “reference” a weapon with their hands, such a gun or a bladed instrument, swiping at their waist band to make sure the weapon is ready to access.  

That opinion was echoed by Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent and a leading expert on nonverbal communications who runs JNForensics, LLC and has been published widely on the topic. Joe told me that "too often we place an over-abundance of focus on the face when in fact the whole body is communicating to us." For him, masks present "but one small inconvenience."

So far, these seasoned law enforcement officers have been proven correct. A scan of news reports about mask-related incidents focus almost exclusively on disputes and even violence erupting from arguments between citizens over one of them refusing to wear a mask while out in the public.

Everyday citizens may be taking matters into their own hands to enforce local mandates, but there are few recorded incidents of police-related violence resulting from mask-related communication issues.

So, while face-masks might present problems with post-offense identification and lessen the tools available to security personnel charged with protecting property, there remain important tools at the disposal of the street cop or agent performing field interrogations and whose quick judgment might mean the difference for the safety of all parties involved.

Joe Navarro is at https://www.jnforensics.com/. His twitter handle is @navarrotells.