Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS/Zuma Press
A pedestrian wears a ski mask along Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia.
CNN  — 

The Philadelphia City Council passed a bill Thursday that bans the use of ski masks in parks, schools, public transit or other city-owned buildings, a move they say will help law enforcement solve crimes but that civil rights advocates believe will criminalize people of color.

The bill, passed by a 13-2 vote, will fine offenders $250 for each offense, and up to $2,000 if a mask is worn during the commission of a crime.

Mayor Jim Kenney will sign it into law early next week, according to council member Anthony Phillips, who drafted the ordinance.

“The City of Philadelphia has been under siege with individuals who use ski masks to commit crimes. It’s caught onto not just young people, but young adults who have made this a particular thing to do,” Phillips told CNN. “The Philadelphia Police Department can’t tell who’s a criminal and not a criminal, which makes it difficult for crimes to be solved in Philadelphia.”

Sarah Peterson, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, told CNN, “The administration will review the legislation, and in the meantime looks forward to our ongoing work with City Council on the urgent matter of ensuring public safety.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in people wearing various face coverings including ski masks, “complicated policing” because mask mandates made it easier for criminals to conceal their identities, Philadelphia Police Department Deputy Commissioner Francis Healy said during a committee hearing in November.

“There was a time not so long ago when any average police officer would see a person donning a mask before entering a convenience store or a bank and they would believe a robbery was about to occur,” Healy said. “However, the pandemic changed that mindset where people were actually more fearful of people without masks than with masks.”

Although mask mandates are no longer required, some people continue to wear ski masks with the intention of concealing their identities when committing crimes, Healy says.

“Criminals have continued using masks to avoid capture and it remains problematic, so the department fully supports the intent and rationale behind this ordinance,” Healy said.

In 2020, there was an uptick of crimes committed in Philadelphia by perpetrators wearing ski masks, according to the city council measure.

Since then, two people were shot, one fatally, by two suspects wearing ski masks in 2021, according to the bill. And in 2022, five masked individuals, some wearing ski masks, shot into a crowd at a football scrimmage, killing a child and injuring four others. In May 2023, the bill says, a suspect wearing a ski mask shot and killed a 15-year-old on a bus. One month later, another person in a ski mask killed five people and injured two children in the neighborhood of Kingsessing.

Ski masks, or balaclavas and other masks that hide a person’s identity, were banned on Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) transit, including trains, buses subways and trolleys in June. In 2023, there have been at least eight shootings in SEPTA vehicles and stations, including at least one where the suspect was wearing a full-face mask, CNN affiliate WPVI reported.

“These full head coverings are a major issue because we are seeing it routinely being worn in 80- degree weather or above, and there is no legitimate reason, pandemic withstanding, to wear a full head covering in public,” Chuck Lawson, chief of SEPTA police, said at a news conference at the time.

Police say the ski masks are known on the street as Shiesty’s, nicknamed after Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty, who often donned the mask during performances and music videos. This led to a rise in their use in the music scene and among youth, according to Philadelphia Magazine. Shiesty’s have been widely available to purchase online.

The rapper pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence and drug trafficking. He is set to be released in January 2026, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Advocacy group says bill criminalizes men of color

Not everyone who is stopped for wearing a ski mask will be given a citation, Healy says, but the ban will give officers the power to intervene when they see someone wearing one “before something bad happens.”

“When we stop them, we have to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or violation,” he added. “This gives us the authority to do a little more.”

But council members who voted against the bill criticized it because it “criminalizes and marginalizes young Black men,” said council member Jamie Gauthier on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“I cannot in good conscience vote to further criminalize Black and brown young people in our city,” council member Kendra Brooks, who also voted against the bill, said on X.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks speaks during the hearing on a ski mask ban in Philadelphia on Thursday, November 30.

Solomon Furious Worlds, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, says banning ski masks will not decrease crime in the city. Instead, he says, the measure will endanger innocent people of color who sometimes wear face coverings like ski masks.

“All this ordinance does is criminalize poverty and disproportionately target young men of color,” Worlds told CNN. “If the city council was serious about curbing crime they would spend time and money on mental health crises in the city, housing in the city, child care in the city so single parents could work more, after school programs, education, things like that. These are things that could actually deter criminal activity.”

“The aim of this ordinance is not actually to make Philadelphia safer,” World added. “This ordinance is specifically made to try and authorize the Philadelphia police to authorize unlawful and unconstitutional stops.”