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Masks make it more difficult for police to identify suspects

Published: Apr. 5, 2021 at 8:42 AM EDT
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ESSEX, Vt. (WCAX) - Masks have been critical throughout the coronavirus pandemic to help keep new case counts low and combat community spread. But they have also been a challenge in some ways as well.

Because everyone has a mask on, when someone commits a crime, getting a good look at the criminal can be tough.

“The biggest thing we have seen is it’s hard to identify someone when they are wearing a mask,” Essex Police Chief Ron Hoague said.

Hoague says finding suspects is never a simple task, but add in masks, and it gets more complicated.

“We’ve seen everything from retail thefts to, well, we are working a case right now with a major fraud from several banks,” said Hoague.

That fraud is a case where a man is alleged to have cashed multiple checks at different People’s United Banks.

He’s accused of using the identities of deceased or fake people to cash checks totaling $40,000 within the last few weeks. Even with relatively clear security photos, half of his face is unidentifiable.

“You have to wear a mask to go into a store or a bank, so what are you going to do,” said Hoague.

But that doesn’t mean people are getting away with more crimes. The chief says it simply requires more diligence on their end.

“It relies on a lot more investigative skills as far as getting a better statement from victims or witnesses,” said Hoague.

And this isn’t just an Essex problem.

Rutland Police upped their patrols due to an increase in car break-ins, and although there are videos to match the crime, masks are blocking faces.

Colchester Police say some incidents are creating the same problem.

“The video we get from store surveillance, sometimes it’s difficult to identify in the best of circumstances, that certainly makes it more difficult when most of their face is being blocked by way of a mask for sure,” said Lt. James Roy with Colchester Police.

Roy says if a criminal strikes, witnesses and victims can help police too, even if someone is wearing a mask.

“Be distinctive about what kind of mask they are wearing, that is part of the clothing essentially now,” said Roy.

They say to look out for any identifiers as well, like eyes, tattoos, clothing, mannerisms and anything distinctive.

And Hoague says even if masks pose a problem, it’s a problem for everyone and they are still glad people are following the mandate.

“It’s becoming a national argument, I think, but we will go with what the best guidance is,” said Hoague.

Chief Hoague says while they wrestle with this problem, other problems from earlier in the pandemic have gone down.

“When we first started out with the mask mandates and everything. We really did, we started seeing complaints from people about not wearing masks. I think as we have gone on, I think people have caught on to that. You know they are just not going into a store or they put a mask on when they go in a store or something like that. You know most people are being compliant with what they are being asked to do, so we haven’t seen that many problems with it,” said Hoague.

Essex Police say despite the added challenge when a crime is committed, they’re glad to see people following mask guidance.

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