West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced Monday he has approved recommendations to fire all of the correctional officer cadets who participated in an apparent Nazi salute during a class photo.
“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” Gov. Justice said in a statement.
“I also said that this act needed to result in real consequences – terminations and dismissals,” he added. “This kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch in any agency of State government.”
Two academy trainers and a cadet were fired after the photo was first released by the state’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety on Dec. 5. Thirty-four others were put on unpaid leave.
A third staff member who failed to report the contents of the photograph will also be fired, bringing the total number of staff terminations to three. Additionally, four academy instructors who are known to have seen the picture and failed to report it will also be suspended without pay.
In the image, nearly all members of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training Class #18 — 31 cadets — are giving what appears to be a Nazi salute. The others are posing with a clenched fist in the air.
The photo, which was included in graduation packets, carries the state seal and the official symbol of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It is captioned, “Hail Byrd.” A reference, officials say, to instructor Karrie Byrd, who was responsible for teaching cultural diversity, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported.
According to the executive summary report drafted by Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen, the hand gesture started in the second or third week of the academy session as a sign of respect for Byrd.
“The investigation disclosed that she encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture,” the documents state.
The picture was apparently taken at the request of Byrd. Multiple cadets allege it was taken several times because not everyone agreed to participate in the gesture. In the end, in an effort to comply with Byrd’s order of the salute, seven people opted to hold up a closed fist.
Byrd told investigators she was unaware of the “historical or racial implications of the gesture.” She insisted it was “simply a greeting,” according to the report. But her statement was contradicted by multiple sources, the report says.
When questioned about the photo by a secretary who expressed concern, Byrd allegedly explained the cadets did it “because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.”
She added that there was nothing wrong with the photo because “we have people of all colors and backgrounds in the picture and every one of them are participating.”
The secretary and two other instructors separately approached Capt. Annette Daniels-Watts who, according to the investigation, said, “Well, this is going to bite us in the ass.”
While Daniels-Watts admitted she found the picture “horrible,” the captain “never addressed Byrd, had the pictures pulled from the packets, or reported the situation to her supervisor.”
With the exception of Byrd, the names of the cadets and other members of the department have not been released. As Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported, Military Affairs and Public Safety secretary Jeff Sandy said they were being withheld after threats to harm those involved began to surface.
The governor’s decision comes just days after a man entered a rabbi’s home in New York on Saturday and stabbed several people who had gathered there to celebrate the seventh night of Hanukkah.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the attack was part of anti-Semitic “hatred exploding” across the country.
Cuomo characterized the violent episode as “an act of domestic terrorism.”
The final report on the West Virginia incident determined that while the gesture captured in the photo was “highly offensive,” it did not reveal any overt motivation or intent that this was a discriminatory act towards any racial, religious, or ethnic group.”
The participants were instead motivated by “poor judgement, ignorance, peer pressure, and fear of reprisal.”
The graduating class of the academy would have gone on to work as correctional officers within the Bureau of Prisons and Jails, in work-release programs with the Bureau of Community Corrections and with young people within Bureau of Juvenile Services, Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the Division of Correction and Rehabilitation told NPR.
“We have a lot of good people in our Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. But this incident was completely unacceptable. Now, we must continue to move forward and work diligently to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”