MPD's Fourth Precinct commander demoted after ‘racist’ Christmas tree prank

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey promised whoever decorated this tree would lose their job by end of day Friday.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey promised whoever decorated this tree would lose their job by end of day Friday. Facebook

By Friday, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Minneapolis.

But not at the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct office. There, it was beginning to look a lot like racism.

A precinct Christmas tree was decked in malt liquor containers, a fast food cup from Popeye’s Chicken, crumpled bags of Takis and Funyuns, and Newport cigarettes. Black Lives Matter activist Chauntyll Allen took a photo of the tree and posted it on Facebook, calling the decorations “blatant” racism.

She wasn’t the only one who thought so. The precinct is located in a majority-black neighborhood in north Minneapolis -- part of City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham’s ward. The tree stood for the idea, he said, that “black people are a stereotype to be mocked,” and the comparison to “trash in the gutter” wasn’t exactly encouraging, either.

“These pieces of trash were deliberately chosen to represent how certain officers feel about the community they serve,” Cunningham told the Washington Post.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey himself called the decorations “racist, despicable, and well beneath the standards of any person who serves the city of Minneapolis.” He also promised the “offending party” would be fired by the end of the day.

The end of the day came and went. No one was fired.

His spokesperson, Mychal Vlatkovich, reined in the mayor’s statement later that day. Two officers were placed on paid leave, pending the results of an “expedited investigation.” Their names have not been made public.

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

It wouldn’t be the first time Frey has spoken a little too soon about what’s to be done and when. Back in August, Frey and other city officials promised to clear the burgeoning homeless encampment near East Franklin and Hiawatha Avenues by the end of September. December has arrived, and nearly half of the encampment’s 300 or so inhabitants are still there.

Meanwhile, Allen has made the Facebook photo of the tree private after getting a few too many harassing comments from “trolls,” but she told the Star Tribune that she doesn’t really see the need for an extensive investigation into the incident.

“It [the tree] was clearly there,” she said. “What more needs to be investigated?”

Finally, on Monday afternoon, Chief Arradondo announced that, after "thoughtful review and consideration," he had decided that Assistant Chief Mike Kjos would be put in charge of the Fourth Precinct until "a decision is made on the next Inspector."

No reference was made to the Christmas tree, who, if anyone, had been fired, and whether this leadership change had anything to do with either. But the immediate demotion of Inspector Aaron Biard was announced in a department-wide email around 3:45 p.m., according to the Star Tribune. The Star Tribune says the day shift lieutenant, Chris House, was also replaced. The two officers allegedly responsible for the tree decorations are still on paid leave.

Frey's office sent out a statement in support of Arradondo's decision, saying it "reflects his resolve to make meaningful change."