Police officers are supposed to protect and serve, not mock and ridicule.
But two Minneapolis cops who work the city’s North Side either don’t know or don’t care about that. They apparently thought that denigrating the community that their Fourth Precinct calls home was acceptable as a “prank.” So they foolishly decorated their office holiday tree last week with a Newport menthol cigarette pack, a can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, police tape, a bag of Takis chips and a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
Once city leaders were informed, the response was appropriately strong and swift. Mayor Jacob Frey called the display “racist” and “despicable.” Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said he was “ashamed and appalled” and placed the officers on paid leave as contractual police procedure requires. He also demoted one Fourth Precinct leader and replaced another.
Frey’s initial reaction was that the two officers should be fired — and based on the facts that have surfaced to date, we agree. But the mayor has since had to walk back that statement, understanding that there is a contractual process that must be followed to terminate an officer.
Perhaps the officers reportedly responsible for the decorations, Mark Bohnsack and Brandy Steberg, thought they were funny. But the two 21-year veterans should have known better. Reportedly, the annual holiday tree was put up in the precinct by one officer. Then Bohnsack and Steberg took it upon themselves to add items that turned the seasonal symbol of peace and joy into a racist play on stereotypes about the neighborhood they patrol.
A photo of the so-called “Garbage Tree” was widely distributed Friday on social media, where it was soundly and legitimately denounced. Still, some online commenters believe this isn’t a big deal, that the decorations were a just a joke — albeit a bad and insensitive one.
That attitude fails to acknowledge long-simmering police-neighborhood tensions — particularly between cops and the African-American community. It doesn’t take into account the black men who have been killed in police-involved shootings and long-term impact of their deaths on community relations. “It’s just a joke” is not amusing to those who have been unjustly ignored, mistreated or injured by police over the years.
“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,” City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham wrote in a Facebook post.
That’s the most serious harm done by the display: Its mocking message damages city and MPD efforts to improve relations with a community that has had reason to suspect and fear police. If the tree decorations accurately represent how some officers truly feel about the neighborhood, how can neighbors believe that cops are there to help?
In a letter to his staff last week, Chief Arradondo reminded that just one act can erode public trust in the entire department. He wrote, “… our communities are looking toward us to be their beacon of hope that we, as peace officers, will serve in a manner that treats everyone with fairness, dignity and respect. That manner of treatment is nonnegotiable.”
That’s how Minneapolis cops and law enforcement officers in other cities should do their jobs. Mocking and denigrating the communities they’re supposed to serve should never be acceptable.