Two Minneapolis police officers suspended last winter after decorating a police station’s Christmas tree with racially offensive items were fired from the department last week.
The officers, Mark Bohnsack and Brandy Steberg, were put on administrative leave shortly after a photo of the tree surfaced on Facebook, setting off a firestorm that included calls for their termination. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo apologized for the incident and wrote in an internal department e-mail at the time that the incident was an example of how a single act can undermine the department’s credibility. Among the voices publicly calling for the officers’ immediate removal was Mayor Jacob Frey, who later walked back his comments.
“I support Chief Arradondo and his vision for shifting the culture of our police department,” Frey said in a statement. “Racist behavior that undermines our work to improve police-community relations and build trust is unacceptable.”
Last November, Bohnsack and Steberg decorated the 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 and a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen — items that critics said played to racist stereotypes. Though the officers’ exact motives remain unclear, department brass described the situation to city leaders as a “prank.”
In the minds of many, the episode marked another setback in the department’s efforts to improve relations between officers and black North Siders that had been frayed by a recent string of police-involved shootings.
Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, whose ward is on the North Side, said he believes the terminations send the message that officers are no different from other city employees in that they need to be “operating from a place of compassion.”
“It’s important for people who are employed with the city to understand the standard that they’re being expected to perform with cultural competency,” he said, while saying that he was surprised it took so long to discipline the officers. “I think when certain behaviors such as this aren’t dealt with with expediency, that erodes public trust.”
Department records show that Bohnsack and Steberg each have a list of department commendations as well as numerous complaints. A police spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the department doesn’t comment on personnel matters.
The terminations mark the latest fallout from the Christmas tree controversy.
Then-precinct inspector Aaron Biard was demoted after the episode. Internal investigations continue into his and one of his lieutenant’s roles in the incident.
The police union said Wednesday that it has already filed appeals on behalf of both officers. “The chief and I don’t agree on everything, but when we disagree, it’s in a very respectful manner,” Federation President Lt. Bob Kroll said. “There’s a process in place and we’re going through that process.”
In an unrelated matter, Kroll said the union was awaiting the outcome of a veterans-preference hearing for officer Peter Brazeau, whom Arradondo has sought to fire for his role in the December 2016 beating of a handcuffed suspect. The union lodged a grievance over the firing of Brazeau’s former police partner, Alexander Brown, according to Kroll.