A former Minneapolis police officer who retired after a controversy over a racist Christmas tree display said that the department botched its handling of the case and that city leaders acted to appease anti-police activists.

Brandy Steberg accused the city’s mayor and police chief of creating a “false narrative” that he had been fired for his role in the November 2018 incident, when in fact the 23-year department veteran had retired for medical reasons.

“I believe that it also served a purpose for the mayor and the City Council. They were looking for a reason to send a message that they were going to be hard on the Police Department and hold us accountable even if they don’t hold themselves accountable,” Steberg said in a recent phone interview.

Steberg also denied that he and his former colleague, Mark Bohnsack, had any racist intent when they decorated a tree in the lobby of the Fourth Precinct station with a pack of menthol cigarettes, a can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, police tape, a bag of Takis snacks and a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. He said the incident was part of a prank that the two officers were playing on a fellow cop with a reputation for being a “neat freak.”

The interview with Steberg, arranged by his attorney and a publicist, echoed the conclusions of an arbitrator who last month reversed Bohnsack’s termination.

“I was thinking it was absolutely politically motivated, and again, I regret that my actions were taken out of context, and a joke between co-workers. I allowed a false narrative to be perpetuated, not only by the mayor and the chief, and again by certified self-appointed activists,” Steberg said.

The arbitrator’s report said that the department should not have terminated Bohnsack but ruled that the officer must serve a 320-hour suspension without pay for his actions.

It’s unclear whether the city will appeal the decision. In a statement, a spokesman for Mayor Jacob Frey, Mychal Vlatkovich, said: “As Mayor Frey has repeatedly stated: We need deep arbitration reform, and we need it immediately.”

Minneapolis police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An image of the tree was first posted on social media, where it sparked outrage and prompted Frey to call for the officers’ immediate dismissal. They mayor later walked back his comments.

Critics said the decorations played to racist stereotypes and reflected how the officers really felt about patrolling the mostly Black neighborhoods that make up the North Side. After the public outcry, Chief Medaria Arradondo placed the officers on leave.

Bohnsack was fired nine months later.

Steberg had been in the process of being terminated when the union appealed, later reaching an agreement with the city that allowed him to take a medical retirement, according to Steberg and his attorneys. In March, the City Council approved Steberg’s $180,000 workers’ compensation claim for two on-the-job injuries.

Arradondo has since apologized publicly for the episode, telling audiences at community meetings that the officers’ actions were insensitive and that he recognized how it could cause harm at a time when the department was trying to build trust in minority communities.

In overturning Bohnsack’s firing, arbitrator Jay Fogelberg wrote that the officer should’ve known his actions would have hurt community members on the predominantly Black North Side. But, he ruled, the discipline imposed on Bohnsack was unduly harsh, given that the department didn’t terminate other officers who were accused of similar misconduct in the past.

Steberg agreed that he made a mistake, he said, but felt he was being made a scapegoat by city leaders who were looking to pander to activists.

“I agreed that it was unprofessional and accepted full responsibility for it,” he said.

Steberg joined the force in 1997 and said he received numerous commendations on the job. He was named officer of the year and awarded the state Department of Public Safety’s Medal of Honor for saving a person whose car had plunged into Minnehaha Falls. Like Bohnsack, Steberg has also been the subject of numerous complaints, department records show.

After stints in the Third Precinct and the training academy, Steberg landed in the North Side precinct, where he says he felt at home.

“I would say it was a fantastic experience. It’s unlike what most people hear on the news or read about in a newspaper,” he said.