Arbitrator: MPD officer connected to Christmas tree controversy unfairly terminated, but should be suspended

A photo of a Christmas tree decorated with items associated with racist stereotypes caused a controversy in December 2018.

A neutral arbitrator determined one of the Minneapolis Police Officers involved in decorating what was perceived as a racist Christmas tree at the 4th precinct in 2018 should have been disciplined, but did not deserve to be fired.

Last week, police sources told FOX 9 that Mark Bohnsack, a 20-year veteran of the MPD, had won his job back in arbitration, but will serve a 320-hour suspension. His last day with the department was on Aug. 1, 2019.

Bohnsack and another officer were placed on administrative leave in December of 2018. A photo of the Fourth Precinct’s tree posted online showed the tree had been decorated with items associated with racist stereotypes, including a Popeye’s bucket, police tape, a Newport cigarette pack and a bag of Takis. 

City and community leaders denounced the racist tree, with Mayor Jacob Frey calling for the police department to fire the officers involved. The fallout eventually led to the demotion of Fourth Precinct Inspector Aaron Biard.

According to the arbitrator’s decision from Aug. 5 that was obtained by FOX 9, Bohnsack and Officer Brandy Steberg said the tree was a “joke” played on a fellow officer who was known to be a neat freak and who had initially decorated the tree. The officers told investigators they gathered pieces of trash from their squad cars and a few items found in a nearby alley and placed them on the tree to irk their cleanly colleague.

The internal investigation led the department to terminate the two officers for their “multiple poor decisions that [he] made over a protracted time period,” in violation of the MPD’s Professional Code of Conduct, that was “racially derogatory and offensive and [that was] against department core values.”

The Minneapolis Police Federation filed a complaint in July 2019, which was appealed to binding arbitration after the two sides were unable to reach a settlement.  

The city argued to the arbitrator that the stereotypical trash put on the 4th precinct tree was “not only disrespectful but served to reignite past trauma within the community involving the 4th and the citizens it serves – the majority of whom are African American.”

The union, however, argued that Bohnsack’s termination was “excessive and therefore unjust.” It pointed to Bohnsack’s “impeccable” work record and his numerous honors and accolades.

The Federation also argued that the MPD did not have proof of intent to fire Bohnsack.

“The Union maintains that the Employer cannot demonstrate that the Grievant’s actions were deliberately intended to be racial or made with the knowledge that they would have an adverse impact on the community, the Department or his fellow officers.”

The arbitrator said the following in his analysis of the union’s and city’s arguments:

The record shows that Officers Steberg and Bohnsack each stated more than once in the course of being interviewed by IA that their lone motivation for the “prank” was harmless and directed solely to Officer Thompson. There was, according to both of them, “no intent at all” to be discriminatory towards the African American community they served, nor were their actions driven by racism or to be considered insensitive in any manner. Rather, they maintained that they were simply “playing a joke on a coworker” that they hand known for over 20 years.

Following the death of George Floyd in police custody, Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo have called for changes to the police arbitration process, which they argue has allowed officers accused of misconduct to return to the department despite what the chief has decided. In July, the Legislature passed a bill on police accountability, which included an overhaul to the arbitration process.