Minnesota police commander demoted after furor over racist Christmas tree

A Minnesota police commander was demoted Monday after two officers in his precinct decorated a Christmas tree with racist ornaments.

Inspector Aaron Biard, of the Fourth Precinct in north Minneapolis, will be replaced by the previous commander, Assistant Chief Mike Kjos, until the department finds a permanent replacement, the Star Tribune reported. Biard will return to the rank of lieutenant and work in the traffic unit.

The department did not identify the officers responsible for the incident, but the Star Tribune, citing multiple sources, named two 21-year veterans of the force, Mark Bohnsack and Brandy Steberg. Both were placed on paid leave Friday, pending an internal investigation.

Bohnsack and Steberg are accused of littering a Christmas tree outside the Fourth Precinct with an empty cup from Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, crime scene tape and empty bags of Takis and Funions, as well as cans of Steel Reserve malt liquor.

A photo of the tree surfaced on social media last week, sparking outrage from the community as well as elected officials.

“These pieces of trash were deliberately chosen to represent how certain officers feel about the community they serve: that Black people are a stereotype to be mocked and the lives of those they serve may as well be reduced to trash in the gutter,” Council Member Phillipe Cunningham wrote on Facebook.

On Friday, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called for both of the officers to be fired by the end of the day.

“This behavior is racist, despicable, and is well beneath the standards of any person who serves the city of Minneapolis,” Frey said. “Racism and intolerance is absolutely unacceptable, and that should especially be the case amongst our city employees,” he added.

His spokesperson later said Frey’s sentiment remained the same but that he acknowledged “there is a legally required process that must be followed.”

Frey expressed his support for Police Chief Medaria Arradondo’s decision to remove Biard from his post.

“It reflects his resolve to make meaningful change,” Frey said in a statement Monday.

Following the incident, Arradondo said: “I am 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.”

Both Bohnsack and Steberg have several department commendations as well as complaints. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury in at least three fatal police shootings, according to the Star Tribune.

The tree incident is not the first time the Fourth Precinct has been accused of racism. Following the 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, members of the Black Lives Matter movement protested outside the precinct for over two weeks.

A group that formed after Clark’s death, The Twin Cities Coalition 4 Justice 4 Jamar, called for the officers who decorated the tree to be fired, the Washington Times reported.

If the officers are fired, they can appeal the decision through arbitration.

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