See more of the story

A former Minneapolis police officer who was fired for decorating a Christmas tree with racist items two years ago should get his job back, an arbitrator has ruled.

The arbitrator said that Mark Bohnsack was wrongly terminated for the November 2018 incident that also resulted in the firing of another cop, but that Bohnsack must serve a 320-hour suspension without pay, officials said. The city has a right to appeal the decision.

It comes amid renewed scrutiny of the arbitration process in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, which touched off protests worldwide against systemic racism and policy brutality.

Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder confirmed that Bohnsack was back with the department and that the other officer involved, Brandy Steberg, was not, but declined to give further details, saying he wasn’t authorized to discuss personnel matters.

Details of the arbitration proceedings weren’t immediately available, including whether Bohnsack will receive back pay and benefits from the day he was fired.

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 the Fourth Precinct station with a pack of menthol cigarettes, a can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, police tape, a bag of Takis snacks and a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

An image of the tree was first posted on social media, where it sparked outrage and prompted Mayor Jacob Frey to call for the officers’ dismissal.

At the time, department officials described the incident as an ill-considered prank, but critics said the decorations played to racist stereotypes and reflected how the officers really felt about patrolling the mostly Black neighborhoods that make up the North Side. After the public outcry, Chief Medaria Arradondo placed the officers on leave.

Arradondo later apologized publicly for the episode, saying that he recognized how it could cause harm at a time when the department was trying to build trust in minority communities.

Bohnsack had been the subject of at least 12 complaints over the past seven years, including one open case from 2018, according to records maintained by the Office of Police Conduct Review. Though the files aren’t public, none of the complaints resulted in disciplinary action. In 2010, then-Chief Tim Dolan reprimanded Bohnsack and another officer for requiring a couple in their 40s to hike up a freeway ramp after their car was impounded, although it’s unclear whether either officer was disciplined.

Bohnsack has also received several commendations for outstanding police work, but details of those citations were not available.

In still more fallout from the Christmas tree incident, former Fourth Precinct inspector Aaron Biard was demoted and transferred to the traffic unit, and one of his top lieutenants, Chris House, was replaced. Then, last month Arradondo suspended Biard and House for 800 hours and 400 hours, respectively, the equivalent of five months and just over three months.

It’s unclear whether either officer intends to appeal the suspensions, which were part of a wave of disciplinary actions handed down by Arradondo in the wake of Floyd’s death.

Floyd’s death has renewed calls for reforming the arbitration process, which Arradondo and other police chiefs say makes it too difficult to fire problem officers.

In June, Arradondo announced he was withdrawing from union contract negotiations, saying that he wanted to review the grievance and arbitration process, which Frey has called a “gigantic blockage in getting us to a place where we can see that necessary culture shift.”

Union officials have said that the process is critical to ensure the rights of officers accused of misconduct.

On Thursday, Frey renewed his calls for a change to the current system.

“The facts of this case are clear. Chief Arradondo’s decision to terminate or discipline should not be overturned in cases like this,” he said in a statement. “We need arbitration reform that tackles an arbitrator’s authority to reinstate in cases of established, egregious misconduct.”

A recent Star Tribune analysis showed arbitrators had ordered cities to rehire half of the 80 Minnesota officers who grieved their terminations over a 20-year period. In those cases that were overturned, arbitrators often didn’t dispute the underlying misconduct but rather argued that the punishment was too harsh or otherwise violated due process.

Last month, the state Legislature approved funding for the creation of a panel of expert arbitrators to handle police misconduct cases, as part of a suite of police accountability measures. Critics say the changes don’t go far enough.

A message left for the police union went unreturned Thursday.

The Associated Press contributed this report.

Libor Jany • 612-673-4064

Twitter: @StribJany