A Minneapolis police commander has been demoted following uproar over a Christmas tree display littered with ornaments critics deemed racially offensive.
According to the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, Inspector Aaron Biard of north Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct will be replaced by former commander Chief Mike Kjos, who will oversee the day-to-day operations until the department finds a replacement. Meanwhile, Biard will return to his rank of lieutenant and work in the traffic unit.
While department hasn’t named the officers involved, the Star Tribune, citing multiple sources, identified the officers as Mark Bohnsack and Brandy Steberg, both 21-year veterans of the force. Bohnsack, 43, and Steberg, 47, were suspended Friday amid outrage over Christmas tree decorations at the city’s Fourth Precinct station deemed “racist” and “despicable” by Mayor Jacob Frey.
In a statement, Frey decried the holiday exhibition after photos of the display appeared on social media showing the tree decorated with items such as a can of a malt liquor, packages of Newport cigarettes, police crime tape and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen cups, CBS Minnesota reported.
“This behavior is racist, despicable, and is well beneath the standards of any person who serves the city of Minneapolis,” the mayor said in a statement Friday. “Racism and intolerance is absolutely unacceptable, and that should especially be the case amongst our city employees.”
Frey initially called for the firings of the two officers, arguing “termination is necessary — both to discipline the officer and to send a clear message.” He later backed off of the idea after recognizing a formal process must be followed and instead placed the officers on paid administrative leave while the department investigates.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo echoed the mayor’s sentiments, calling the display “racially insensitive.” Arradondo said the decorations have since been removed.
The StarTribune noted that last week’s incident occurred at a precinct where law enforcement leaders have struggled to rebuild trust with the community since the fatal police shooting of Jamar Clark. The Fourth Precinct, located on Minneapolis’ North Side, was the site of a four-day occupation by angry protesters demanding justice in Clark’s death.
Frey issued a statement following Biard’s demotion, saying he supported Chief Arradondo’s decision and that it “reflects [the police chief’s] resolve to make meaningful change.” Biard was criticized for his handling of the tree incident, which occurred early last week but wasn’t addressed until many days later
The officers’ motive for the racist decor remains unclear, but department heads chalked the incident up to city leaders as a “prank,” the newspaper reported. Local activist Ron Edwards thought it was no laughing matter, however, and called the Fourth Precinct decorations a “wink wink” to racist stereotypes.
“It’s a modern-day version of a dog whistle, tainted with racism, specifically against the African-American community,” Edwards said.
Both Bohnsack and Steberg have a list of department commendations along with a slew of complaints. The officers have been cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury in at least three deadly shootings, the StarTribune reported. Additionally, Bohnsack has been the subject of 12 complaints since 2013, while Steberg was named in two Office of Police Conduct Review complaints this year and last year.
Police Chief Arradondo said in a statement Friday that he was “ashamed and appalled by the behavior of those who would feel comfortable to act in such a manner that goes against our core department values of Trust, Accountability and Professional Service.”
“In these often challenging times our communities are looking towards us to be their beacon of hope that we, as peace officers, will serve in a manner that treats everyone with fairness, dignity and respect,” he added. “That manner of treatment is nonnegotiable.”
Should he choose to fire the officers pending the outcome of the investigation, they can appeal the decision through arbitration.
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