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Two Minneapolis police officers have been placed on leave pending an internal affairs investigation into what Mayor Jacob Frey called a "racist display" in the form of Christmas tree decorations in the North Side precinct.

The incident, occurring in a precinct where police leaders have struggled to rebuild community trust since the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark in 2015, was quickly denounced Friday as a provocative insult.

Longtime civil rights activist Ron Edwards called the Fourth Precinct tree decorations — a Newport cigarette pack, a can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, police tape, a bag of Takis and a cup from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen — a "wink wink" to racist stereotypes.

"It's a modern-day version of a dog whistle, tainted with racism, specifically against the African-American community," Edwards said.

The photo, which first hit social media this week, created a hectic Friday at City Hall, with Frey condemning the decorations as "racist" and "despicable." The mayor vowed that those responsible "will be fired before the day is over."

Hours later, his spokesman, Mychal Vlatkovich, backtracked, saying the process of firing an officer takes more time. The officers are still being paid.

"While Mayor Frey's earlier statement reflects his sentiment, he recognizes there is a legally required process that must be followed," said Vlatkovich. "He has full faith in Chief [Medaria] Arradondo to see that process through in a timely manner."

The photo comes at a time when Minneapolis officials are working to repair community perceptions of police. The tension is particularly acute in the Fourth Precinct, where activists recently mourned the third anniversary of a police officer's shooting of Clark, an unarmed black man. That 2015 shooting revived longstanding tension between some north Minneapolis residents and the police tasked with protecting them, and launched an 18-day activist demonstration at the police station.

Jeremiah Ellison, who is now a City Council member, was among the leaders of the 2015 precinct protests. On Friday, Ellison was at a loss for words to describe his reaction to the photo of the tree.

"Man, every way I could put it would understate it," said Ellison. "It's disappointing, but also I think deeply disturbing to wake up to something like that. Not just for myself, but for my neighbors."

He said "the police precinct as a whole needs to address it further."

Ellison made those comments as he left a budget meeting, during which the council voted to reduce the mayor's proposed police budget for 2019 by $1.1 million.

In a statement Friday, Arradondo said he was "ashamed and appalled by the behavior of those who would feel comfortable to act in such a manner that goes against our core department values of Trust, Accountability and Professional Service." The chief said he has "initiated a full investigation and will make information public when possible in accordance with Minnesota State Statute."

If Arradondo fires the officers, they can appeal through arbitration.

Union President Lt. Bob Kroll did not respond to a request for comment.

Demand for reparations

As darkness fell Friday, a dozen community activists stood in front of the dimly lit precinct headquarters to condemn the tree display and demand reparations, including a healing event for residents.

"We are tired of being the city's punching bag," said former City Council candidate Raeisha Williams, adding that the incident has lent a sour note to Christmas for many North Siders.

"Here we've had our holiday taken away from us. Destroyed. Manipulated. By hate, bigotry and racism," Williams said.

Chauntyll Allen, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Twin Cities, said she learned about the display after someone e-mailed her a photo. It sat in her inbox for several days before she noticed it, she said, lamenting that the display was likely up for days before being taken down amid public pressure.

Allen questioned calls by city leaders for an internal affairs investigation. "It was clearly there," she said. "What more needs to be investigated?"

BLM and other groups demanded the immediate firing of the officers involved, cultural competency training for Police Department employees and the addition of North Side community liaisons.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham wrote on Facebook that he talked to Fourth Precinct Inspector Aaron Biard, who said the ornaments had been taken down. Cunningham said Biard described it as an officer's "prank."

"They hurt EVERY gain made in improving community-police relations," wrote Cunningham. "On a personal level, despite being a [Council Member], I am still a Black man myself and these outrageous reminders only further my own feeling (of being) generally unsafe around police officers."

Cunningham expressed confidence that Arradondo will "permanently eradicate this ugly racism from the police department."

Staff writers Liz Sawyer and Mukhtar M. Ibrahim contributed to this report.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036