In Key Biscayne, Fla., a crew hops off the back of a golf cart. In Signal Mountain, Tenn., a four-door sedan speeds past on a rain-slicked road and backs up before a woman pops out of the passenger seat. In a suburb of Salt Lake City, a man calmly walks up a driveway.
Sign-stealing ramps up every four years ahead of presidential elections. This time around, many more people have home cameras. That means more perpetrators are being filmed in the act as they snatch, kick and yell at signs for President Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden, as well as signs for political causes.
Local Republican and Democratic Party officials say they are getting daily complaints about stolen signs. Partisans are dreaming up new ways to discourage sign thieves. Police departments nationwide are searching for suspects as emotions rise before Election Day.
“A lot of people are very passionate on both sides of the aisle about their candidate, and unfortunately it’s leading people to make very bad choices,” said Harford County, Md., Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler.
His office is looking for a man suspected in multiple sign thefts over the summer. In one video caught by a homeowner, he strode up the front lawn of a house in Bel Air, Md., tucked his face in his shirt, made an obscene gesture and grabbed a Trump/Pence sign before marching back to his car. The man hasn’t been identified, Mr. Gahler said.
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Sales of home-surveillance cameras and video doorbells from traditional home-security companies, as well as services such as Amazon.com’s Ring and Google’s Nest, have surged since the 2016 election. They hit more than 15.5 million annual unit sales in 2020, up from about 9 million in 2016, according to Jack Narcotta, senior industry analyst at research firm Strategy Analytics.
In the past four years, the market has been “growing like gangbusters,” he said.
Brian Moore, an Army veteran living in Shelby, Ohio, said his 6-foot by 10-foot Trump sign was stolen by a group of teenagers. He reported it to the police and posted a video of the incident online. One of the fathers recognized his son and made him return the sign. Mr. Moore got his sign back, crumpled and defaced.
He decided not to file charges. Instead, he asked their parents to buy him a new sign. He also wanted all five teenagers to write him an apology letter. And apologize to his face while delivering the letter. Mr. Moore said they all came to his house, said they were sorry and gave him their letters, which he said were mostly sincere.
“We all did stupid things when we were growing up,” said Mr. Moore, 51.
Martin Lubell, a 57-year-old genetic scientist in Wooster, Ohio, said eight of his Biden yard signs have been nabbed at his residence and a second house he rents out. In a video of one incident at his home, two shadowy school-age figures run up to the yard at around 2 a.m. One takes a Biden sign.
The family noticed it was gone after his wife, Beth Muellner, went for a morning run. She saw some other Biden signs in their neighborhood were missing. They scrolled through their Nest camera footage, found the clip and later reported it to the police, though the video was too grainy to identify suspects.
They have tried different strategies. They pitched a tent on the lawn at their rental property, figuring thieves would worry it was occupied. And they placed a flag there, thinking that would deter people from damaging or stealing the sign.
It didn’t. Another sign was discovered stolen there Wednesday morning, putting the total at nine.
Then there are the people who have been recorded yelling at signs.
Ashley Denton, a retail manager in Bellevue, Neb., said she was drinking coffee on her back deck with her two dogs when screaming punctured the air. She walked inside and pulled up footage from her Nest camera to find a man with his car window rolled down, screaming at a multicolor “We Believe Black Lives Matter, No Human Is Illegal, Love Is Love, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, Science Is Real, Water Is Life” sign in her front yard.
“Trump 2020,” the unidentified man yelled, before shouting obscenities and pulling away.
Since then, her doorbell camera has caught at least nine other instances of people screaming at or kicking her signs. Ms. Denton wasn’t home every time, but she gets notifications on her Nest app when there is an unusual sound.
“I thought it was really ridiculous that somebody would take time out of their life to yell at a house,” said Ms. Denton, 36.
Some party officials say they have seen an increase in sign thefts this year compared with 2016, though they caution it’s difficult to tell if the pace has increased, since they have handed out a record number of signs this time.
“2020 has been a totally different ballgame,” said Mary Duty, chair of the McLennan County Democratic Party in Waco, Texas, adding she believes thefts are up sharply. Ms. Duty said the county party has given out about 1,000 Biden signs so far, and she estimated at least 200 have been reported stolen to the county party.
After thefts increased, Ms. Duty said she started telling people to position their Biden signs where doorbell cameras can catch thieves.
Doug Deeken, chair of the Wayne County Republican Party in Wooster, Ohio, said it’s hard to say how the rate compares with 2016—in part because the office handed out about 4,000 more Trump signs this election and started distributing signs earlier. He added, though, that people come into the office every day and say their sign has been stolen.
People take it personally when their signs—a public display of their identity—are stolen, said Anand Sokhey, co-author of the book “Politics on Display: Yard Signs and the Politicization of Social Spaces.” That draws people to file police reports or post footage of the event on social media, said Mr. Sokhey, a political-science professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, even if it’s unlikely that the culprit will be caught.
“There is at least a deterrence that people are trying to go for,” he said.
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