Minneapolis police Chief Medaria Arradondo demoted a high-ranking deputy over the weekend after the deputy's comments in a Star Tribune article prompted an internal backlash.

Art Knight, who had served as Arradondo's chief of staff, was quoted using the term "white boys" in a story that ran in Sunday's newspaper about law enforcement efforts to attract and retain recruits of color.

Knight, who like Arradondo is Black, will return to his civil service rank of lieutenant. The department, through a spokesman, wouldn't say whether his demotion was directly related to his comments in the newspaper or to something else.

Knight said in an interview Monday that he was "disappointed" by the move, but that he stood by his assertion that the department wasn't doing enough to attract women and minorities. Still, he admitted that he could have phrased his remarks differently.

"If I offended anybody with the verbiage of 'boys,' then I'm sorry," he said. "The message was about the lack of diversity, so it's just frustrating to me — it's like certain people are looking for an out, and not make it about it a lack of diversity."

He said he planned on taking some personal time away from the department as he decided his future.

The Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the union that represents most of the city's cops, encouraged its members in a memo to file a complaint with the city if they have been "impacted, offended or harmed" by Knight's comments.

The federation requested an investigation, but said its members have " 'Zero faith' this incident will be handled in a manner consistent with past incidents of 'perceived' racism or 'racially insensitive' actions.

"These racially charged comments do nothing but further erode the integrity of this administration and their ability to be racially responsible when it comes to decisions for the department," the statement read.

"Furthermore, it negatively impacts our officers' abilities to police in diverse communities because it hints that these 'old white boys' are policing in an unprofessional racist manner."

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said Tuesday he had a "lot of respect" for Knight and his willingness to speak "bluntly" about issues facing the department.

Ellison, whose ward covers part of the North Side, said he couldn't comment on the demotion because he hadn't yet had a chance to speak with Arradondo or Knight about it, but said he disagreed with the idea that Knight's comments were racially disparaging.

"The term 'white boys' is not a slur, it's just not — you can read it into it and you can say well maybe it has a connotation, but show me a history of where it was used to oppress a group of people," Ellison said. "Quite frankly you can say it's distasteful or whatever, but at the end of the day it's not slur, so I don't think it should be treated as such."

Knight's demotion comes at a particularly sensitive time for the MPD, which found itself in the international spotlight in May after the death of George Floyd at the hands of four since-fired officers.

While the department recently hired one of its most diverse recruiting classes in recent years, critics point out that Minneapolis still lags behind other cities of similar size and racial makeup, with less than a quarter of the force being ethnic minorities.

In Sunday's story, Knight took a dim view of the department's efforts to add diversity, saying that if the MPD continues to employ the same tactics to recruit, train and promote, then "you're just going to get the same old white boys."

The comments were made in an interview earlier this month in which Knight discussed, among other things, his desire to expand the department's depleted community service officer program, a two-year curriculum that funnels nontraditional applicants onto the MPD while they earn their law-enforcement degree.

Earlier this year, COVID-19-related budget cuts forced the program to shutter, but officials said they hope to restore it next year.

Inside the department, the backlash to Knight's comments was swift and intense, with some rank-and-file officers taking to social media to decry the use of the phrase "white boys" that some saw as unnecessarily divisive.

Arradondo sent out a departmentwide e-mail around midday Sunday saying the matter was "being addressed internally."

"Today a Star Tribune article quoted a member of my administration making a statement that used words that were hurtful, unacceptable and does not reflect the attitudes and values of our department," the e-mail said. "I want to apologize to all those who were offended by that statement."

Meanwhile, Knight's backers, both inside the department and out, said privately that the backlash was rooted in "white fragility" around having uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations about race, and risked overshadowing Knight's bigger point about the MPD's diversity problem.

Knight joined the department in 1991, and he worked as both as a patrolman and detective before taking over the procedural justice initiative, which sought to improve public trust by emphasizing respectful interactions.

The Chicago native stepped into the then-new role of chief of staff last March, and he was put in charge of overseeing the department's community outreach efforts.

His was the latest in a series of demotions by Arradondo. In April, he demoted Kim Lund Voss from commander to lieutenant over a Facebook post that was considered insensitive to homicide victims in a city where most are young Black men.

Former Fourth Precinct inspector Aaron Biard was stripped of his command in 2018 for his handling of an incident in which two of his officers decorated the police station's Christmas tree with racist ornaments.

Biard was reassigned to the traffic unit and suspended for 800 hours without pay.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064

Twitter: @StribJany