West Virginia Governor Jim Justice announced Monday that he has approved the firing of all the correctional officer cadets who appeared in an explosive photo performing a Nazi salute.
“I have reviewed the factual information regarding this incident that was provided by [Public Safety] Secretary [Jeff] Sandy, and have approved all of his recommendations,” Justice said. “I expressed my thanks to him and the entire Department for quickly getting this report done.
“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo of Basic Training Class 18 in the strongest possible terms,” the governor continued. “I also said that this act needed to result in real consequences – terminations and dismissals. This kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch in any agency of State government.”
As ESSENCE previously reported, the photo was taken at Glenville State College during Basic Training Class No. 18, which was conducted Oct. 21 through Nov. 27. The image, which is on West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation letterhead, shows 34 trainees in uniform giving the Nazi salute under a sign that reads, “HAIL BYRD!”
The trainees’ instructor was identified in initial and subsequent reports as Instructor Byrd. The New York Times has reported her full name as Karrie Byrd.
After the photo was released on Dec. 5, Justice quickly condemned it, issuing a statement calling for “the termination of all those found to be involved in this conduct.” Subsequently, three of the state’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees—two academy trainers and one Basic Training Class #18 cadet—were terminated, and the remaining 34 cadets were placed on unpaid leave.
“We are committed to a full and complete investigation that we will present to Governor Justice and to the public once it is finished,” WV Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy said in a statement at the time.
“As terrible as this incident has been, it is critically important that we go by the book to arrive at the whole truth of what occurred and why,” Sandy said. Sandy called the image “distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive, and completely inappropriate.”
The results of that investigation were released Monday.
In addition to all of the cadets being fired, one additional trainer, identified by the New York Times as Capt. Annette Daniels-Watts, failed to report the content of the class photograph, “the substance of conversations with Instructor Byrd regarding the practice and the photograph, and also her knowledge of the ongoing conduct, thereby contributing to the negative perception and indelible harm that has resulted from the incident.”
Both Byrd and Daniel-Watts have been terminated, Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the military affairs department, told the Times.
Four other academy instructors, who not only knew about the content of the photo, but “witnessed Instructor Byrd and her class participating in this conduct and while making attempts to stop it, failed to take the necessary steps to report the conduct and to ensure that it was, in fact, no longer occurring, thereby contributing to the negative perception and indelible harm that has resulted from the incident,” have been suspended without pay.
According to the executive summary of the investigation, Byrd stated she was completely unaware of the historical or racial implications of the gesture and thought it was simply a greeting, told different versions of how the photo came to be.
“The statement Byrd provided during her interview was heavily contradicted by multiple sources during the investigation,” Betsy Jividen, Commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitations, wrote in the summary.
According the Jividen, the gesture was done with Byrd’s complete knowledge. The investigation disclosed that she “encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture.” Additionally, “Byrd appeared to overrule the corrective actions taken by others and assured the cadets the behavior was acceptable.” Byrd also told fellow instructors that her students performed the salute because she was a “hard-ass like Hitler.”
Byrd said many at the Academy witnessed her class doing this and never made any comments or told them to stop. In fact, according to the summary, a Black cadet allegedly instigated the usage of the Nazi gesture, telling his classmates and instructors who took offense, “Look at me I am Black, and I am doing it…”
The Black cadet who has been identified as the alleged ring leader by the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not been identified by name, neither has he issued a public statement confirming or denying the truth of the report.
At least ten of the cadets said they felt uncomfortable with the white supremacist gesture and did not participate when their classmates had done it previously; however, they stated that they felt pressured by Byrd to take the photo, fearing they wouldn’t be allowed to graduate if they didn’t. Seven of those cadets, in order to comply with Byrd’s direction, but not make the gesture, held up a closed fist.
“We have a lot of good people in our Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. But this incident was completely unacceptable,” Justice said. “Now, we must continue to move forward and work diligently to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”