- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Buying a ski mask isn’t illegal, but could restricting their sale help prevent crime?

The notion is stirring debate among some Northwest Washington residents after reports of robberies committed by men wearing ski masks. The frequency of the robberies also has caught attention of police, who say one neighborhood crew is frequently purchasing masks at a local sports store for the express purpose of committing robberies.

“They clearly are a problem. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see it being mentioned in all the reports,” said Faith Wheeler, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from the Takoma neighborhood in Northwest.

And while police from the Metropolitan Police Department’s 4th District said they think the Rittenhouse Crew — many of whose members are known to police officers — is responsible for some of the robberies, the ski masks are a huge stumbling block if victims are to be unable to identify their assailants.

On a Metropolitan Police Department-run listserv, Ms. Wheeler was one of several people who broached the subject of trying to discourage the sale of ski masks in the neighborhood, or asked legislators whether there are other ways to ban their sale.

“I don’t know how you can get at it legislatively,” said Ms. Wheeler, acknowledging she meant to open the door to discussion rather than suggest her own cure-alls. “I don’t know that persuasion itself would work unless you have a personal relationship with a store owner.”

D.C. law already ban individuals — ages 16 and up — from wearing masks in public under certain circumstances, such as while committing a crime or with “the intent to intimidate, threaten, abuse or harass any other person.” But prosecution under the law appears infrequent. The Office of the Attorney General, which handles juvenile and misdemeanor cases in the District, was aware of only two cases in which juveniles faced charges under the law, spokesman Ted Gest said.

“It is typically not a stand-alone offense,” he said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office was unable to provide data immediately on the number of times charges have been brought under the law.

At a Ward 4 Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting Monday night at the 4th District police headquarters, officers cautioned residents that a sports store along Georgia Avenue seems to be the new place criminals are going to buy one-time-use ski masks for the sole purpose of robberies.

“Guys are going in there, buying their mask, doing a robbery and then walking away,” Officer Jonathan White said.

Though hardly unique to the 4th District, a cursory review of robbery-suspect descriptions provided by police shows a number of robberies or other crimes in which a ski mask is part of a vague suspect description. During a robbery on Jan. 23 at 13th and Varnum streets Northeast, police said two black men wearing ski masks got out of a gold Honda Accord and held a woman at gunpoint to steal her purse.

On the afternoon of Jan. 10, two black men, one armed with a silver handgun and wearing a ski mask, held up a man at gunpoint and stole his money and cellphone in the 5900 block of 5th Street Northwest.

“It’s a traumatic experience,” said Ms. Wheeler, who was nearly carjacked by a man wearing a ski mask last year.

But where some were supportive of cracking down on ski masks, others saw scapegoats and irrational fears.

“And the next thing you know, the irrational thinkers will be talking about getting rid of scarves. A long scarf can make a good mask. Hmm. What’s next after that?” one woman wrote on the police listserv in response to the ski mask discussion.

Employees of City Gear, a Georgia Avenue sports apparel store, highlighted the necessity for a ski mask in cold weather.

“I started wearing them for football,” said Michael Carr, 22. “The police wear them, too. People are just trying to make a big deal out of anything.”

Athletic shoes, knit caps, and running shoes all lined the walls of the Brightwood neighborhood store — but no ski masks, he pointed out.

Robberies are “happening every day,” Mr. Carr said. “You really think you’re going to be able to stop that?”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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