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May 26, 2023

SEPTA riders must remove ski masks following recent bus shootings

Transit Police will not enforce the rule for religious coverings, hoods and face masks for COVID-19. Those who refuse to remove prohibited items will be removed from SEPTA facilities

Transportation SEPTA

SEPTA Transit police will begin telling riders to remove ski masks.

SEPTA Transit Police officers will begin telling riders to remove ski masks that conceal their identities as part of a broader effort to deter crime on the system. The rule follows two recent shootings that happened on buses, including one in which authorities say a suspect had been wearing a ski mask.

The policy was confirmed Friday by SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch, saying it's not technically new for transit police to exercise this kind of judgment during patrols.

"SEPTA has the discretion to be able to enforce this on its property, but what is new is that SEPTA Police are now actively engaging riders who are wearing ski masks and similar coverings to make clear to them that they cannot be worn on SEPTA," Busch said.

Enforcement will take place as part of regular police patrols at all SEPTA facilities, without any focus on particular hotspots.

"When police see someone wearing a ski mask-like covering, they are asking them to remove it," Busch said. "If they refuse, they will be escorted off of SEPTA property. No other SEPTA employees are being asked to enforce this, these engagements and potential removals are only being done by SEPTA Police."

People who wear face masks for health reasons, those wearing hoods and those who have religious coverings, such as hijabs, will not be affected by the policy. The use of body-worn cameras by transit police officers will be a safeguard against concerns about harassment or racial profiling, since the department regularly audits that footage and reviews complaints filed against police, Busch said. 

Violent crimes committed at SEPTA facilities have increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when ridership plummeted due to social distancing and changes in work habits. In March, Busch said the system was still only at about 60% of its pre-pandemic ridership.

"We have seen people wearing (ski masks) in several other shootings and other violent incidents recently, and it is also a concern customers have raised with us," Busch said. "These types of coverings can make it more difficult to identify people who commit serious crimes. They may also be more emboldened to engage in violent crime if they believe their identity is hidden."

The mask mandates put in place during the pandemic normalized face coverings on SEPTA's buses, trains and subways. Many people continue to wear them in crowded spaces to prevent COVID infections. Ski masks and balaclavas, sometimes called "sheisties," also became common forms of masking during the pandemic.

On May 17, two men were injured in a shooting on a Route 33 bus in the area of 21st and Diamond streets. One 18-year-old victim was shot once in the groin. The second victim, also 18, suffered a graze wound to his left thigh. SEPTA police said the shooter, who fled the scene, was wearing a ski mask that covered his face. No arrests have been made in that shooting.

Then on Wednesday, around 11 p.m., a 15-year-old boy was fatally shot on a Route 23 bus that was traveling near the 5200 block of Germantown Avenue. Philadelphia police released surveillance video from that shooting on Friday showing a suspect wearing a black face mask with a hood over his head. A second man, described as a person of interest, was not shown wearing a mask.

SEPTA has taken a number of crime-fighting measures in the past year, including assigning more officers to patrol the city's two subway lines and testing out a gun detection system that uses artificial intelligence to spot weapons. The transit police also have a new chief, Charles Lawson, who was promoted this month from the role of acting chief, which he held since the resignation of former chief Thomas Nestel III last July.

The city is offering a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the suspect in Wednesday night's shooting.

Busch said only SEPTA transit police officers will be enforcing the ski mask rule, and no other SEPTA employees have been asked to approach people who wear these kinds of face coverings.