ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - The community of Abbotsford, B.C., has shed the title of homicide capital of Canada, and police are crediting a provocative campaign against gangs as making the difference.
The Fraser Valley city of 137,000 went from recording 11 murders — most gang-related — in 2009 to none in 2011 after four deaths in 2010, said Const. Ian MacDonald.
Based on the Statistics Canada figures for communities with a population of over 100,000, Abbotsford was on top on a per-capita basis in 2009.
Edmonton now has the dubious distinction as Canada's murder capital, posting 47 slayings last year, say police in that city.
"What we were fortunate to have was the support of civic leaders and the citizens when we brought forward the message, which was we've got a problem with gangs," MacDonald said.
"There are communities that will stick their head into the sand or will pour their money into a tourism campaign to try to convince people that, `Yeah, we've got a little bit of an issue but it's still a place to come and visit,'" he said.
Along with its prevention program that targeted schools, police formed a gang suppression unit to deal with gangs.
The message hit home for residents and police when two high school students turned up dead in 2009 after getting involved as "foot soldiers" with rival gangs that included the United Nations Gang and the Red Scorpions, the gang police say is led by the infamous Bacon brothers.
MacDonald said the students were victims two and four in a year that would end with 11 people dead, many shot in public places.
"When you start seeing kids who are 17 and 18 years, just at the beginning points of their life and their adulthood and not necessarily knowing what they're involved in getting taken out, that's when everybody in our department and everybody in our community stood up and went, `This is different, we've got to do something.'"
In May 2009, Chief Bob Rich and then-mayor George Peary issued a public warning about gang violence in the community, and police went to work to spread the message to high school students who could be gang recruits.
During the one-hour presentations, they used social media, videos and a poster with a picture of a hearse and a casket, along with the caption: "You can't pimp this ride."
"We didn't go in there like, `We're the police, we know everything, you don't know anything, now listen to us,'" MacDonald said.
"We went in with, `We need to start a dialogue, we need to listen to what you guys have to say and we know that every day you're making good choices and on those occasions when you're tempted to make a choice that you're not certain about, here are some facts. And that was to, unfortunately, trace some of those tragedies that were part of those bad years."
The department spread its anti-gang message on drugs, guns and profit to parents and to middle and elementary schools and the public, with 25,000 people attending the presentation at dozens of forums — "anywhere that would take us," MacDonald said.
They set up a youth help line and also targeted gangster girlfriends who were attracted to bad-boy gangbangers and their seemingly attractive lifestyle of fast cars and money.
Police also formed Business Watch so business owners could share information about shoplifters and who was buying their goods if gang activity was suspected.
And the department created its own version of Bar Watch, also used in other communities, so bar owners could work together to keep out gangsters.
A third gang, the Duhre group involving a Metro Vancouver family of three brothers, moved in to fill the void after leaders of the UN Gang and the Red Scorpions were arrested, but didn't get far.
"They attempted to move in and pretty much swallow up both of those gangs in the early part of 2010," MacDonald said. "They achieved some degree of success but it was short lived because opposition to the Duhres started to form almost as quickly as their arrival."
MacDonald said the Abbotsford Police Department's recipe for suppressing gang violence involved being honest with citizens when a dose of reality was the only solution to the seemingly endless death toll.
"The citizens in any city have to be engaged and they have to be willing to contribute and be part of the solution or you don't stand much of a chance."
- By Camille Bains in Vancouver
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version reported Edmonton had 45 slayings in 2009.