Gov. Jim Justice has announced additional firings following an investigation into a class photo of West Virginia corrections officer trainees giving an apparent Nazi salute. Those firings, which include a class trainer and the entire cadet class, come after initial firings and suspensions were announced earlier this month.
A summary of the investigation was made public by the governor’s office Tuesday morning.
According to a summary written by Department of Corrections Commissioner Betsy Jividen, the photo was taken at the direction of a class trainer. The photo was copied and there were plans to distribute it with graduation packets, despite complaints from at least three staffers.
And, according to Jividen’s summary, investigators found other photos of cadets displaying offensive hand gestures on social media.
A redacted version of the initial photo released earlier this month shows most members of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training Class #18 giving what appears to be a Nazi salute. Others in the class are depicted giving a raised clenched fist.
The governor’s office and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety still have not released an unredacted version of the photo, despite public records requests from West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
The published photo is captioned “Hail Byrd!”
As part of one public records request, West Virginia Public Broadcasting obtained a training schedule that shows Academy instructor Karrie Byrd was responsible for teaching the cadets cultural diversity.
In the summary of the investigation released Monday, DMAPS says Byrd told investigators she was unaware of the “historical or racial implications of the gesture” and reported it was “simply a greeting.”
Several other sources in the investigation reportedly contradicted this statement.
According to the investigation summary, the use of the gesture began two to three weeks in training. Students repeatedly greeted Byrd with the gesture to her knowledge and with her encouragement.
“The investigation disclosed that she encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture,” DMAPS Secretary Jeff Sandy wrote. “Additionally, Byrd appeared to overrule the corrective actions taken by others and assured the cadets the behavior was acceptable.”
Other instructors and some students admitted in the investigation to recognizing the historical context of the gesture. Trainees who had voiced concerns were assured by other members of the class the gesture was acceptable because “there was no racial motivation on their part.”
After the photo was taken — “by and at the direction of Instructor Byrd”, the report said — Byrd told secretarial staff there was nothing wrong with the gesture because the photo had “people of all colors and backgrounds in the picture and every one of them are participating.”
Byrd then told staff to caption the photo “Hail Byrd”, according to the report, telling the secretary the students say that “because I’m a hardass like Hitler.”
The photo was copied and included in graduation packets. The secretary and two other instructors who caught wind of the picture brought their concerns to a Captain Annette Daniels-Watts.
Daniels-Watts reportedly told investigators she found the picture to be “horrible.” However, Daniels-Watts never addressed Byrd, didn’t request the pictures be removed and didn’t report the situation to her supervisor.
When addressed by one instructor, Daniels-Watts reportedly said. At a staff meeting later, regarding the leaked picture, Daniels-Watts' response was "Do I resign now or what..." and "I saw the picture and did nothing ... ".
Jividen concludes at the end of the summary, addressed to DMAPS Secretary Jeff Sandy, that while the gesture was “highly offensive and egregious in appearance”, there was no evidence revealing “any overt motivation or intent that this was a discriminatory act towards any racial, religious, or ethnic group.”
“Rather,” wrote Jividen, “contributing factors included poor judgment, ignorance, peer pressure, and fear of reprisal.”
Gov. Justice said in a press release Monday he accepts the report findings and he approves the recommended firings. Sandy wrote to Justice he recommends firing three Academy staffers total, suspending four Academy instructors who failed to report what they were witnessing without pay and firing all of the cadets who participated in the open and closed-hand salute in the photo.
“Although it would have been best for the state had this event never happened, the event showed that your mandate of having a transparent Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety has worked,” Sandy wrote to Justice. “The citizens of West Virginia should be proud of the transparency exercised in the handling of this unfortunate event and how the Commissioner and Inspector General have worked to bring this matter to a quick conclusion.”
Officials with DMAPS said they were unable to immediately respond to a requests for the names of those involved.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.