Covid face coverings - a dream for bike thieves?

As face coverings are becoming the new norm, Stolen Ride asks, are bike thieves taking advantage?

Before March 2020, if you saw someone with a face covering hovering around your local bike storage facility in broad daylight, what would you have thought? Fast forward to now, you probably wouldn’t look twice.

When you search for news stories online, COVID-19 related mask use and crime is yet to be widely discussed in the UK. But there are stories including for example a recent theft from a newsagent’s shop with the criminals clearly wearing medical masks.

Also, if you search around stolen bike related posts on social media, you will find a few recent cases showing the thieves wearing medical face masks on shared CCTV footage. It’s worth noting that sharing CCTV footage of crimes online is very much a grey area and has been known to hamper police investigations and justice (unless the police have shared the footage themselves). After all, a ‘trial by social media’ is not good in any circumstance.

Is the topic of face coverings and crime about to come to light in the UK?

Gareth, who recently had two bikes stolen out of a locked bike storage facility mentioned the following on the Stolen Ride Facebook group:

“The police also viewed the CCTV. The first thing they asked was, were they wearing Covid masks?”

Look to other countries, such as the US and you will find plenty of examples of footage showing criminals wearing medical masks to shield their identity and discussion around it.

Criminals might think they’re protected wearing a face covering. After all, the stereotypical bank robber or burglar you think of probably always wears a balaclava. Whilst it has never been against UK law in recent times to wear a balaclava, it does carry that negative and uneasy perception around crime.

Balaclava - burglar

Does CCTV work?

In 2016 Stolen Ride interviewed a reformed London bike thief who mentioned the following about CCTV:

“CCTV was not a put off. We had helmets on so we couldn’t be identified (well, we thought so at least). Location didn’t matter, we were young and reckless, and we didn’t care about security or people.”

A member of the Stolen Ride Facebook community, shares a view that is often voiced:

“Most of them steal shamelessly without any precaution and not even caring about CCTVs as they know they will likely get away with it.”

The College of Policing research estimated “for every 100 crimes, an average of 16 crimes were prevented with CCTV” and therefore “modestly reduces crime overall”

There are plans for many advanced facial recognition cameras around London, with the view of increasing security, but the rollout is now likely to be paused due to face masks. As recently reported by The London Evening Standard.

So what happens after you report a crime to the police? The Metropolitan Police state that initial investigations include “talking to witnesses, reviewing CCTV or video footage” and then they make an assessment to investigate further, with that assessing the “likelihood it be solved”.

CCTV is clearly a key part of crime investigations/convictions and you can understand why face coverings can make it harder for the police. Though the police do have techniques to analyse CCTV footage, such as looking at the way a person walks, to their height.

Final thoughts

The importance of us all wearing face coverings during these COVID-19 times is clear, with medical advice around the world encouraging the use in certain areas. But it’s currently unclear if COVID related face coverings are, or will, result in thieves adjusting to the times and taking advantage in the UK. It’s still wise to be extra vigilant during these COVID pandemic times. After all the vast majority of bike thieves are opportunistic. If you see suspicious activity, or witness a crime, look beyond the criminal’s face and look out for unique features, such as tattoos, that you can provide to the police.

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