While state officials are still not identifying the West Virginia corrections officer trainees during a pending investigation into a photo showing many in the class giving an apparent Nazi salute, public records shed some light on other aspects of the training program — including one trainer who has been a focal point of the controversy.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting obtained the information about the training program through a public records request to the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
A redacted version of the photo, which was released last week, shows 31 members of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training Class #18 seated in rows giving what appears to be a Nazi salute.
The photo includes the state seal and the insignia for the DOCR, and is captioned “Hail Byrd,” which state officials have said is a reference to a class instructor.
According to a training schedule provided to West Virginia Public Broadcasting as part of the records request, one instructor is listed as “Ms. Karrie Byrd” — the only person on the document with that last name.
The schedule, which reflects the training for Class #18 between Oct. 21 and Nov. 27, 2019, shows that Byrd served as instructor on various subjects, including “Cultural Diversity.”
Another document provided to West Virginia Public Broadcasting as part of the public records request shows the work assignments for Basic Training Class #18. Many of them were placed as corrections officers in the state’s regional jails and other corrections facilities, while one was placed as a cook and another as a counselor. DMAPS officials confirmed at least 28 of the individuals in the photo worked between 21.75 and 63.5 regular hours between Nov. 27 and Dec. 5.
Requests for copies of the unredacted photo and a list of cadets from Class #18 were denied. Legal counsel for DMAPS cited concerns about the right to privacy and an exemption related to internal memoranda.
“A number of these requests have been denied due to the need to have a through [sic] and complete investigation,” DMAPS deputy secretary and general counsel Thomas Kirk wrote in the response letter. “As soon as the final report is presented to the Governor’s office and approved by his staff, the public will be advised of its completion. At that time, any additional responses which do not violate the law, policy, or exemptions will be released pursuant to a proper and valid request.”
But questions remain over what parts of the investigation will become public.
At a news conference last week, state officials announced they had fired three people involved in the photo, including two instructors and one cadet. They said 34 others had been suspended without pay. State officials confirmed that the person who took the photo has been terminated.
While many in the public have asked to learn the identities of the state employees involved in the training class, Gov. Jim Justice explained last week that he was unsure if he could release an unredacted photo of the cadets.
“These people deserve to be exposed. They do. They absolutely do. I don’t know that I can legally do that,” Justice said at the news conference.
DMAPS Sec. Jeff Sandy said the matter was a public safety issue. He said that the department had been made aware of threats made against those involved in the photo.
“We're allowed by law to balance public safety versus releasing the identity of those. And as I indicated, we've received numerous communications by both telephone and email,” Sandy said at the news conference. “So we will continue to evaluate this and use that information to make that determination.”
In addition to requesting copies of the unredacted photo in question, West Virginia Public Broadcasting has requested access to view the photo under the same conditions select members of the public — faith leaders invited by DMAPS — were shown the photo. State officials have not yet provided a decision on that request.
This story was updated on Thursday, December 19, 2019 at 4:15 p.m. to reflect a clerical error in the training schedule provided by the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. The changes in this story reflect that corrected training schedule from DMAPS.