MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Minneapolis police officer who was fired for decorating a Christmas tree with racist items has been reinstated through arbitration, a process that makes it difficult to fire officers and has been cited as an obstacle to police reform.
The arbitrator ruled that Mark Bohnsack was wrongly terminated for the November 2018 incident, but that he must serve a 320-hour suspension without pay, the Star Tribune reported Wednesday. The city has a right to appeal.
Police spokesman John Elder confirmed that Bohnsack is back with the department, but said another officer who was fired over the incident, Brandy Steberg, is not. Elder declined to give further details, saying he wasn’t authorized to discuss personnel matters.
The two officers were fired last fall after an internal affairs investigation found that they were responsible for decorating a tree in the lobby of a station in a mostly Black precinct with a pack of Newport menthol cigarettes, a can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, police tape, a bag of Takis tortilla chips and a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
An image of the tree circulated on social media, where it sparked outrage. Mayor Jacob Frey called it racist and despicable, and called for the officers’ dismissal. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo placed them on paid leave pending the internal investigation and publicly apologized, saying he was “ashamed and appalled” and that it undermined efforts to build trust with minority communities. The precinct’s commander was demoted.
Frey renewed his calls Thursday for changes to an arbitration system that reverses roughly half of police terminations in the state.
“The facts of this case are clear. Chief Arradondo’s decision to terminate or discipline should not be overturned in cases like this,” the mayor tweeted. “We need arbitration reform that tackles an arbitrator’s authority to reinstate in cases of established, egregious misconduct.”
The Minnesota Legislature last month passed a police accountability bill that included some limited changes to the arbitration process for law enforcement officers, dealing with how arbitrators are assigned to cases and requiring them to get training against bias.