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You better watch out: Holiday greetings for Abbotsford felons

Police in Abbotsford are sending a Christmas card featuring Santa Claus in police tactical gear to prolific offenders this year.

Police handout

It's not the warmest of holiday greetings: Wearing tactical gear over a Santa Claus suit and holding an AR-15 patrol rifle, a scowling B.C. police chief graces the front of the force's new Christmas card.

The accompanying text, which is adorned with festive snowflakes, reads: "Which list will you be on next year?"

But the Abbotsford Police Department hopes it will be a reminder to the city's worst criminals that they are only one choice away from changing their lives.

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It is the latest effort under Police Chief Bob Rich, who has seen Abbotsford's crime rate drop 40 per cent in four years.

The police say they are not just trying to scare criminals – but actually turn their lives around.

The department will send the cards to a select group of between 50 and 100 offenders on its naughty list, said police spokesman Constable Ian MacDonald.

The cards will go to prolific offenders, property offenders and former gangsters.

Prolific offenders have at least 10 criminal convictions and have been the subject of five or more police investigations in the past six months, Constable MacDonald said.

The cards also go to property offenders – those who have been released with court-ordered conditions that relate to their residence, plus a curfew – and those known for drugs and gang activity that have very recently been taken off the APD's list, Constable MacDonald said.

The card includes an invitation to phone the police's help line. From there, the recipient will have the opportunity to speak with a professional about options in pursuing a new life path, Constable MacDonald said.

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"I've talked to many people who are gang and drug involved and had some multihour conversations with people who find themselves in a predicament and want to do something about it," he said. "We're hoping the impetus for them to phone is that they want to change."

Constable MacDonald said the department had heard concerns over the cards being an inadequate reason to look up an offender's address, but insisted no such thing had happened.

"Prolific offenders are part of our prolific offender management program, so their addresses have to be known because our officers check on them regularly," he said. "Those are addresses that are provided to us through the court system, so we don't have to go into the police database for those.

"As far as the gangster list: It's an active list. All of the details relating to that individual are known and kept in a spreadsheet for our Gang Suppression Unit."

When asked whether there were potential civil liberty concerns about such targeting, Constable Macdonald emphasized it is merely a Christmas card going to a small and select group that is already in frequent communication with the police department.

"The communication that we're having with them in writing is an extension of many conversations we've had with them face to face," he said. "In some ways, I consider it a continuation of the dialogue."

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Lindsay Lyster, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said it was more a matter of taste.

"I don't know that it raises a civil liberties issue, but I found it in questionable taste to use the very image of Christmas, in children's eyes, and dress him up in tactical gear."

The cards are the brainchild of Sergeant Mike Novakowski, who handles much of the APD's research and is responsible for the APD's provocative poster campaigns, YouTube videos and anti-gang and positive parenting presentations in recent years. One poster, for example, depicted a coffin being loaded into a hearse, accompanied with the text: "You can't pimp this ride."

Sgt. Novakowski said the idea for the postcards was inspired by several police detachments in the United Kingdom: According to BBC News, for example, West Midlands Police sent postcards to 700 repeat offenders in 2004 after learning 10 per cent of offenders commit about half of all serious crimes. A year before, more than 1,000 wanted criminals turned themselves in after police in Merseyside sent them specially designed cards, BBC News reported.

The APD's messaging, along with ramped up enforcement, largely through the APD's Gang Suppression Unit, is credited with helping transform the Fraser Valley city from "Murder Capital of Canada" to one of the safest in the nation in just a few years.

Abbotsford held the dubious title in 2008 and 2009, with six and 11 homicides respectively, placing Abbotsford on top on a per-capita basis. That compares to four homicides in 2010, none in 2011 and three in 2012.

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