West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Monday he has approved the recommendation to fire all 34 correctional officer cadets who participated in a Nazi salute in a class photo.
The West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety launched an investigation this October into the photo, which shows almost all trainees of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Basic Training Class 18 giving what appears to be a Nazi salute. The rest are posing with a clenched fist in the air. The photo is captioned “Hail Byrd,” a reference to an instructor named Karrie Byrd, who told the investigator that she encouraged the photo to be taken as a sign of respect.
“I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said in a statement regarding the investigation report. “This act needed to result in real consequences—terminations and dismissals.”
In addition, four academy instructors were suspended without pay for their part in allowing the behavior and failing to report after they have seen the photo.
Jeff Sandy, secretary for the state’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, recommended the cadets’ firing to Justice.
“Their conduct, without question, has also resulted in the far-reaching and harmful perceptions that are the antithesis of the values we strive to attain,” Sandy wrote in a Dec. 27 letter (pdf) to Justice. “The inevitable consequence of the conduct has not only damaged the reputation of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, but also negatively impacts morale across the workforce.”
While acknowledging that the “Hail Byrd” photo is “highly offensive and egregious in appearance,” the investigation report concluded that it was not motivated by racial or religious discrimination, but rather because of “poor judgment, ignorance, peer pressure, and fear of reprisal.”
According to the report, the picture was taken at the request of Byrd, who alleged that she was “unaware of the historical and racial implications” of the gesture and that no other staff members raised the issue with her. Contradicting her account, however, were two instructors who said they told the investigator that they warned Byrd and her class about the highly inappropriate salute. Byrd later assured the cadets the behavior was acceptable.
When questioned by an investigator, Byrd responded that she didn’t think there was anything wrong with the photo because “we have people of all colors and backgrounds in the picture and every one of them are participating.”