Butler County officials: Mask mandate makes identifying suspects more difficult

A recent Middletown gas station robbery has highlighted the challenges a statewide mask mandate has created for law enforcement in some crimes, local officials said.

When a suspect wearing a work boots, jeans and a red bandanna entered the Crown East gas station on Dixie Highway on July 19, he likely didn’t raise alarm by wearing a face covering until it was apparent he was there to commit a crime. Because of a mask mandate stemming from a rise in coronavirus cases in Ohio, these kinds of issues could continue, local law enforcement officials said.

Public health experts have stressed that masks are a key piece of slowing spread of the coronavirus, but every rule has unintended consequences, officials said.

Hamilton Police Chief Craig Bucheit recently went to a bank with family members, and they wore masks.

“I told them five months ago if we had done this, they would be calling the police on us,” Bucheit said.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, who is active on social media and appears on local and national news programsregularly, said masks are making the jobs of law enforcement more difficult.

“When everyone is wearing a mask, it’s much easier not to be recognized or raise suspicion,” Jones said.

The often-recognized Jones has faced the same thing when out of uniform. He said he was recently in a store when someone said, “I am glad the police aren’t here.”

“I spoke up and said, ‘Me too.’ They had no idea who I was,” Jones said.

Jones said cameras, both public and private, continue to collect useful evidence from law enforcement, but the recognition of faces is hidden.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser agreed that security cameras are still key in gathering evidence, but witnesses identifying suspects by their face will be much more difficult while these orders are in effect.

“Eye witness identification of a suspect with a mask on, I would say, is now at least 50 percent harder. It is going to require more detailed photographic evidence from other sources,” Gmoser said. “Fortunately in our society today, people have no idea how much video surveillance is going on all the time from various sources.”

He said the mask mandate is creating difficulties for police and prosecutors.

“It is the unfortunate law of unintended consequences that masks are now protecting criminals who are committing heinous actions, however because of the availability of video everywhere in our society, criminals beware, you are still being watched,” Gmoser said.

Middletown Police Chief David Birk said people look much different with mask on.

“It’s much more difficult for us to make identification and get the information out, it’s a complication and something else we don’t need,” Birk said.

The store clerk and a customer describe the Middletown robbery suspect as white man, approximately 50 to 60 years old with graying hair, wearing a red bandanna.

Anyone with any information about this suspect or his whereabouts should call Middletown police at 513-425-7700.

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