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Minneapolis officer fired over offensive Christmas tree told arbitrator it was a 'joke' on colleague

The arbitrator found in favor of officer Mark Bohnsack, who is allowed to resume his job after a suspension.
Racist Christmas tree

The Minneapolis police officer who was fired over Christmas tree decorations that were denounced as racist told an arbitrator that it was a "joke" he was playing on a "clean freak" colleague.

The arbitrator's report into the appeal made by Officer Mark Bohnsack was released Tuesday. The arbitrator found that Bohnsack deserved punishment, but that firing him was too far. He has since been allowed back onto the force with a suspension.

The incident in late November 2018 saw Bohnsack and his partner, officer Brandy Steberg, decorate the 4th Police Precinct Christmas tree with pieces of trash, with a member of the public taking a picture while they were in the station and posting it to social media, where it went viral.

The "trash" in question includes empty packets of Takis and Funyans chips, a pack of menthol cigarettes, an empty can of malt liquor, a paper cup from Popeye's Chicken, and some police crime scene tape.

The choice of "decorations" was widely denounced as perpetuating stereotypes of the Black community, with the city firing Bohnsack and Steberg for actions "that can only be perceived as racist," as well as breaking the public's trust and "reigniting past trauma" in the Northside community, with the 4th Precinct having been the scene of a lengthy protest in late 2015 after the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark by police.

But when interviewed about the incident, Bohnsack claimed that the trash was picked at random from the back seat of his and Steberg's squad car, and that they decorated the tree with trash as a "joke" upon their colleague, Officer Kris Thompson, who they described as a "clean freak."

The Police Federation of Minneapolis however argued that Bohnsack's firing was excessive and "unjust," noting that Bohnsack had "acquired a lengthy and impeccable work record over 20 years with the department."

It also argued that Bohnsack "acknowledged his wrongdoing" once he was able to "look back at it" and said that discipline should be "constructive and corrective," and not "punitive."

It also maintained that the City couldn't prove that Bohnsack knew the decorations were intended to be racist, or have a negative impact on the wider community.

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What the arbitrator ruled

The arbitrator, Jay Fogelburg, said he was "satisfied that ...Bohnsack's conduct was not intended to have the adverse reaction that it did, and that he and his partner were ... seeking to play a joke that was only intended for one fellow officer."

He found that Bohnsack's actions were contrary to his training and he should have known better given his lengthy service in the 4th Precinct and Northside community, but found the City's decision to fire him a "rush to judgement."

He noted that Mayor Jacob Frey told Police Chief Medaria Arradondo he wanted the two officers to be "fired by noon" soon after the decorations came to light, with Arradondo issuing a news release in the days after that said he was "ashamed and appalled by their behavior." 

This news release was issued before Bohnsack and Steberg had been given the opportunity to tell their side, which didn't happen till almost two months later.

It also notes that the officers involved, including Thompson and then 4th Precinct Inspector Aaron Biard – who was subsequently demoted – were interviewed as part of the investigation, though Fogelburg does not that Arradondo and Frey were under intense political pressure to take action.

While he found that there was clear misconduct by the two officers, Bohnsack's "outstanding record ... weighed heavily on the decision to support here a reduced penalty."

It was reported last week that Steberg has not returned to the Minneapolis Police Department.

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