By Minahil Makhdoom
ISLAMABAD: As wearing face mask in public places has become a new normal in pandemic era, criminals are misusing this as a tool to hide their identity and evade arrest. Before the Covid-19, the people at shops or bank counters used to be on alert seeing a person with covered face, but in current scenario, it has become a troubling reality for the people as well as the law enforcement agencies. The criminals easily blend in with typical customers at malls or banks and face masks also help them avoid being captured in CCTV footage.
â€œIf it were a pre-Covid time, I could have averted the happening by finding veiled people chasing me. But now it is normal. They looted me and sped away. One had face mask while other wore a helmet,â€ said a senior reporter Ishtiaq Ahmed who was robbed of Rs800,000 in Islamabadâ€™s I-8/1 area on September 23 in broad daylight.
He said the mask provided a perfect cover to the robbers.
They can hold up any bank or shop with their covered faces and escape unhindered as the police seldom bother to impound the bikes carrying no or non-standard number plates. In another robbery of Rs1.5 million in the federal capitalâ€™s I-8 Markaz on September 30, a masked man was seen inside a bank who apparently intimated his accomplices on phone having witnessed a man leaving the bank with cash bag.
â€œEarlier the bandanna or mask was a dicey proposition for criminals. Nowadays it is normal but scary too. We canâ€™t distinguish between customers and criminals,â€ a bank employee said. A senior police officer, who did not want to be named, said though the crime increase had nothing to do with face mask however, it made it easier for the criminals to blend in. He agreed that under anti-Covid SOPs, a provision could be created to allow security staff outside banks or malls to ask visitors remove face mask at entrance to allow cameras capture the face.
He also opined that other than face coverings, criminals or suspected people could also be singled out through their body language, movement or confidence when questioned. Not only in Pakistan, criminalsâ€™ donning surgical masks is an issue getting global attention with some countries also pondering to revise SOPs or making specialised security arrangements to keep the criminals from entering establishments.
The installation of vestibules, use of high quality cameras and identification softwares are being used to recognise the face behind mask. In America, police have guided people, in case of any crime to note some specificity of the masked criminals like shoes or jacket brand, belt, socks colour, face scars or tattoos to make identification easier.