“Black Lives Matter” signs at four Annapolis-area churches continue to be stolen or damaged, frustrating congregations and police alike.

The signs, intended to facilitate a discussion about racism, have instead become magnets for theft and vandalism.

Anne Arundel County police Chief Timothy Altomare said the situation puts his department in a difficult position.

“We are out there trying to show every part of our community that they matter to us as much as every other part of this community,” Altomare said.

“You look at the national event that started this conversation, and of course the police are right at the center of this. We're duty-bound to be seen doing the best we can.”

In the most recent case, a banner at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Annapolis was defaced with black spray paint last week to read “Lives Matter.”

Since October, nine of the black-and-yellow banners have been stolen and four have been damaged, said Cpl. Jacklyn Davis, a spokeswoman for Anne Arundel police.

A similar sign was stolen Feb. 27 from Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, about a mile from St. Philip's.

The two incidents follow a recent string of thefts and damage to the signs, also on display at Annapolis Friends Meeting House and United Church of Christ Annapolis in Edgewater.

“We've been very proactive with our investigation,” Davis said, adding officers will continue to patrol near the churches. “Many officers have found the incidents before they're reported.”

Fred Muir, the senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church, noted that St. Philip's is on a major thoroughfare.

“It's almost like the people are attacking the [signs] that are most conspicuous,” Muir said. “It's not a matter that nobody is seeing it; it's a matter that nobody is reporting it.”

The Rev. Randy Callender, rector of St. Philip's, said in an interview that congregation members will meet to determine how to better address racism in Annapolis and what their role should be in facilitating that conversation.

Muir said the churches have not discussed how long they plan to keep the banners up.

Altomare said police have done more than 600 documented checks since the first sign was displayed. Five of the nine thefts were spotted by officers checking on the signs.

Police said some residents have argued that police resources are being wasted, but Altomare disagrees.

“Police exist for several things: one is to protect life, two is to protect property, and three is to sustain viable communities where people want to live. So then four is to enforce the law and catch bad guys,” Altomare said.

Black Lives Matter is a national movement against racism and police violence. It began after the high-profile deaths of young black men, including Freddie Gray, who died last year after being injured while in the custody of Baltimore police.