The Tempe Police Department on Tuesday said it has launched an investigation into a group of Santa impersonators who covered up several traffic enforcement cameras in the city earlier this month.
The decision to pursue a case against the mysterious gang of anti-camera-activists is a reversal from Monday when a department spokeswoman said no laws were broken because the cameras were not damaged and there would be no investigation.
Since word of the holiday camera-ploy spread across the Valley and indeed across country, the group has attracted a folk-hero-like status from drivers who are fed up with roadside police cameras.
Scores of readers who posted comments online with the Tribune and other publications overwhelmingly supported the rogue St. Nicks. Some readers went as far as to describe them as "true American patriots."
In recent months, photo enforcement cameras have increasingly become the target of vandalism by those angry with local and state government's decision to expanded use of such equipment to catch traffic violators.
Despite the hostility, Tempe Sgt. Steve Carbajal said it's "illegal to impair the function of the cameras" and future incidents will be investigated by the department.
"My advice to those people is to obey traffic laws," Carbajal said. "I know that's not the popular thing to say but it's pretty simple."
Carbajal said his department changed its mind about whether to investigate after reviewing a video posted Monday on the Web site YouTube.com by the Santas.
The video shows four people disguised in red suits and long white beards placing gift-wrapped boxes and holiday colored blankets over cameras at McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway and Fifth Street and Priest Drive. Police said they were aware of the incident about two weeks ago and removed the obstacles.
While the identities of the group's members remain a unknown, the motives behind the stunt are clearly spelled out toward the end of the 2 1/2 minute video - which is set to the tune of the Jackson 5's classic Christmas song "Santa Clause is Coming to Town."
"Ho! Ho! Ho!," the video stated in bold white letters. "Death to the surveillance state! Free movement for all people!"
The video goes on to say: "Only Santa knows who is naughty and nice. Lumps of coal to all those who make it their business to watch and control. From the border wall to the freeway red light cameras."
Since the Tribune first published a story along with a link to the video on Monday, it has been picked up The Associated Press and received national attention on Web sites such as the popular Drudge Report.
A majority of readers who posted online comments to the Tribune's original story as well as other online publications have enthusiastically backed the activists.
"This is about saying no to a surveillance state in America, the supposed land of the free," wrote one reader who identified as "navyeod."
While some comments express concern about breaking the law, most said they were frustration about the growing number of cameras sprouting up throughout the Valley.
Local psychologist Marlo Archer said popular support for the group points to a "higher tolerance" for criminal behavior than in the past.
She said people are more willing to support law breakers if it somehow benefits their lives.
"People want the government to take care of them but they don't want the government to penalize them when they break law," she said. "There's a lack of accountability, a mentality out there that people want anything that can help them out."