The Abbotsford Police Department has mailed a stack of holiday greeting cards to prolific criminal offenders in the sprawling British Columbia city urging them to change their ways this season.
Between 50 and 100 carefully-selected recipients will open a card that features Santa dressed in police tactical gear and carrying a machine gun.
The snowflake-coated script on the front asks "Which list will you be on next year?"
Inside it reads: "We believe it is never too late to make a better choice for your life. For the sake of your family and for your own sake, consider 2013 the year you choose a new and better life."
A telephone helpline number is included.
Department spokesman Const. Ian MacDonald said police are making a sincere effort to connect.
"As a community we can reach out to some people and give them a different message. You can't expect people to change if the only options provided for them are to continue doing the same thing," he said.
"Some people might think that's naive or that's optimistic to think they're going to give you the time of day through your greeting card, but we look at it like, if we don't present an option, then how can we expect people to select that option?"
Abbotsford ranked No. 1 in per-capita homicides in 2008 and 2009, the Fraser Valley city 65 kilometres east of Vancouver largely plagued at the time by gang and drug violence. The designation prompted the police department to begin a concerted effort to cut-down such crimes.
The holiday card campaign is an extension of other anti-gang messaging, and was designed in-house with partial inspiration from Yuletide cards sent by U.K. police targeting seasonal crime like shoplifting.
The same card, only with a different greeting on the inside, will be sent as the department's regular Christmas mail-out. The stern Santa — which is actually the city's Police Chief Bob Rich — will go to people like the mayor and volunteer groups.
"(The idea) was not to be provocative," MacDonald said, explaining that they put out a different greeting card every year.
The department selected the recipients based on three categories. Prolific offenders have ten or more criminal convictions and have been the subject of five or more police investigations within the last six months. Property offenders who committed break and enters or other thefts. Finally, it will go to people known to be involved in gangs and the drug trade.
MacDonald said the department already receives phone calls from people asking for help to leave the gang lifestyle. Whoever phones the helpline will get a call back from someone with particular expertise or who already knows the individual from previous contact.
The only costs are for printing and postage, making it a low-risk experiment that is so far being largely received as "innovative," MacDonald said.
"We'll see how many calls the helpline gets and we will see if one, two, or three or more people actually do reflect. Maybe that manifests itself as some sort of change."
Abbotsford was the hometown of the notorious Bacon Brothers, a trio of alleged gangsters who have been implicated in a host of drug-related and violent crimes.
The eldest brother, Jonathan, was shot to death in a gang hit outside a hotel in the provincial interior last year, while brother Jamie is accused in the massacre of six people in Surrey, B.C., and brother Jarrod is serving 12 years for drug trafficking.
There were 11 homicides in Abbotsford in 2008, eight of which were connected to gangs and drugs. In 2010 there was four homicides, in 2011 there was zero, and so far this year there have been three murders of which one was connected to gangs.
— By Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver