The demotion of the head of Minneapolis’ Fourth Police Precinct after two officers decorated the station’s Christmas tree with racially offensive items has been the latest in a revolving door of law enforcement leadership on the city’s North Side.
The Fourth Precinct has seen five of its past six police commanders either demoted or transferred amid controversy. The latest came with former inspector Aaron Biard, a 23-year department veteran, who returned to his civil service rank of lieutenant and was transferred to the traffic unit, where he previously served. His undoing was his handling of an incident in which two North Side cops decorated the precinct’s Christmas tree with what many saw as racist ornaments.
Department officials have defended the act as a prank gone wrong. Sources identified the two officers involved as Mark Bohnsack and Brandy Steberg, both 21-year veterans of the police force.
Bohnsack, 43, and Steberg, 47, decorated the tree 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, according to the sources. A photo of the tree surfaced on social media, triggering public outrage and prompting calls for the officers to be fired.
Biard’s demotion after less than 18 months on the job was the first major personnel move by Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who has said he will hold supervisors accountable for wrongdoing by officers they command. Assistant Chief Mike Kjos, who previously served as the precinct’s commander, will take over day-to-day operations until a replacement is found.
The Fourth Precinct job is considered among the toughest in the department — and for good reason, according to Ron Edwards, a local journalist and historian. Each new inspector is charged with rebuilding trust in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, trust that eroded over years due to police missteps and misunderstanding, he said. The 1988 appointment of Bill Jones, the first black officer to be named precinct inspector, was later overshadowed by the police shooting of Tycel Nelson and the killing of an elderly couple during a botched SWAT raid of an apartment on Golden Valley Road.
“Other than Bill Jones, everyone, black or white, who has come into the precinct has come into a hellhole because of the nature of the relationship with the African-American community,” Edwards said.
Biard wasn’t the only inspector with a short tenure. The North Side has long struggled to keep an inspector on the job, beginning with the demotion of Don Banham, who in 2006 was abruptly demoted by then interim Chief Tim Dolan and replaced with Lee Edwards, the former head of the homicide unit. Edwards was removed two years later after being accused of driving a department vehicle drunk and making offensive comments to subordinates.
Before becoming chief, Dolan also oversaw the Fourth Precinct, but even his tenure on the North Side did not escape controversy. Two of his officers came under FBI investigation after an allegation that they had sexually assaulted a man with a toilet plunger during a drug raid in 2003. The feds declined to bring charges.
Michael Friestleben, a popular Fourth Precinct inspector credited with establishing close ties to the community, was demoted for his mishandling of a stalking case involving one of his officers.
When Friestleben was removed from command, Biard wasn’t then-Chief Janeé Harteau’s first choice for the job.
But when she tried to appoint one-time police union president John Delmonico to the position, she was met by a community outcry and later overruled by the mayor, Betsy Hodges, sparking a heated public feud between the two. Harteau eventually relented and named Biard inspector in 2017.
While Biard was publicly commended by Council Member Phillipe Cunningham and others for his quick response to the deepening controversy regarding the Christmas tree decorations, there were concerns within the department’s leadership about his handling of the incident.
Surveillance footage from the lobby of the North Side police station where the tree stood was reportedly handed over to internal affairs at Arradondo’s direction, sources said.
Arradondo addressed the Fourth Precinct vacancy after his reappointment confirmation Friday, saying that he will not rush his decision.
“The community and the employees up in the Fourth Precinct deserve to have the right leadership out there, so I’m going to take the time that’s required to make sure that that is done right and first I do no harm,” he said.
Former Minneapolis police inspector Mike Martin — who before his demotion by Harteau was the longest tenured Fourth Precinct inspector, at five years — said that Biard’s successor will have to strike a balance between listening to the community’s needs and empowering his or her officers to fight crime.
“On the North Side, it only takes one incident to destroy the trust and relationship of the community or the department’s administration,” he said.
Policing in years past has left some residents wary of even well-meaning efforts at improving law enforcement relations with minority communities, according to Julianne Leerssen, a city employee who has served as an intermediary between the precinct and the community.
“You need to be thick-skinned, you need to have some level of cultural awareness, and cultural sensitivity,” Leerssen said. “What North Siders are going to value most is actually seeing you — but not just when there’s a photo op, but that you’ll still come back even after getting yelled at at a meeting, for instance.”
Thandi Jackson-Nisan, an activist who focuses on social justice, said that whoever is chosen to run the precinct should be able to recognize the racial undertones of a Christmas tree decorated with items like a pack of menthol cigarettes and a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
“I could’ve seen maybe hot Cheetos, maybe a jump rope for young kids double-dutching, but when you go to the menthol cigarette,” a line is crossed, she said.
Jackson-Nisan argued that a police commander in Biard’s position should not only be judged by his conduct, but should also be held responsible for the appearance of racial bias by the officers in his precinct.
“I just think when you have all that kind of power, especially when you’ve done all the things that they’ve done, you don’t get second chances, because we don’t,” she said.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 • @StribJany