West Virginia Governor Jim Justice approved the recommendation to fire all correctional officer cadets who participated in a Nazi salute during a class photo.
The photo, which was released by the state’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety earlier this month, showed the trainees of Basic Training Class 18 in uniform, posing with their right arms raised and their hands extended. Above the cadets on the photo where the words “Hail Byrd!”.
According to the investigation summary, the use of the gesture began two to three weeks into training as one that the cadets have described as a “sign of respect” for an individual identified as “Instructor Byrd.”
Two academy trainers and a cadet were fired days after the photo was released. 34 others were suspended without pay while the incident was investigated by the department and its Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
According to the report, instructor Byrd told investigators she was not aware of the “historical or racial implications of the gesture” and reported it was “simply a greeting.” However Byrd’s statement was contradicted by several sources, the report says.
“The investigation disclosed that she encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture,” the report states. “Additionally, Byrd appeared to overrule the corrective actions taken by others and assured the cadets the behavior was acceptable.”
The class photos were forwarded to a member of the secretarial staff as is standard procedure. A secretary reported asking Byrd, “What are you all doing in the picture?” Byrd told her “there is nothing wrong with it, we have people of all colors and backgrounds in the picture and every one of them are participating.”
According to the report, the secretary said that Byrd had her caption the picture “Hail Byrd”, and told the secretary the students say that “because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.”
The report recommended the termination of another academy staff member who failed to report the photo, suspension without pay for four other academy instructors who are “known to have seen the photograph and failed to report its content or to have witnessed … this conduct and while making attempts to stop it, failed to take the necessary steps to report the conduct.”
The report also states that some cadets “only followed what they perceived to be an order from Instructor Byrd to do the ‘Hail Byrd’ for the photograph because they feared they would not graduate, or would be disciplined for failure to follow the order of a superior.”
The salute not only damaged the reputation of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation but “also negatively impacts morale across the workforce,” the report states.
The governor released a statement Monday saying he had reviewed the information regarding the incident and approved all of the recommendations.
“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said, adding that “this act needed to result in real consequences — terminations and dismissals.”
“We have a lot of good people in our Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety,” he said in his statement. “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.”