‘Poor Judgement’ And ‘Fear Of Reprisal’ Fueled Corrections Officers’ Nazi Salute Class Photo, Probe Finds

West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety
|
December 30, 2019 5:58 p.m.

All of the cadets pictured giving a “Sieg Heil” salute in a class photo of West Virginia corrections officers have been fired, Gov. Jim Justice (R-WV) announced Monday when a summary of a state investigation into the photo was released.

The photo, which shows the vast majority of trainees giving the Nazi-era salute and some raising a fist, was the result of a mix of “poor judgement, ignorance, peer pressure and fear of reprisal,” the summary of the investigation said.

The photo of Basic Training Class Number 18, members of which would have stood guard at institutions around the state, rocked West Virginia.

The class’ use of the gesture began in the second or third week of training as a greeting to an instructor, Kassie Byrd, who encouraged and even sometimes reciprocated it, the investigation found.

She also directed the “Hail Byrd” photo, which the investigation found was taken “several times due to not everyone participating in the gesture.”

When an academy secretary asked about the picture, Byrd said “they do that because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler,” the secretary told investigators.

According to the summary, additional photos on social media showed Byrd and several trainees holding their hands horizontally below their noses, “which has been used to satirically reference Hitler,” the report noted.

When the secretary raised concerns with a captain identified as “Daniels-Watts” — a first name is not given — the captain allegedly said, “Oh, I should just pull it, but since you have them already printed you might as well go ahead and stuff them into the [graduation] packets.”

When two instructors saw the photo in the graduation packets and brought their concerns to Daniels-Watts, the captain allegedly said, “Well that is going to bite us in the ass.”

Daniels-Watts acknowledged being alarmed by the photo but told investigators that she “did nothing.”

“Do I resign now or what…” Daniels-Watts asked investigators.

“Byrd and Daniels-Watts are no longer [Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation] employees,” Lawrence Messina, a spokesperson for the state’s department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, told TPM.

Byrd told investigators she was “completely unaware of the historical or racial implications of the gesture and reported it was simply a greeting,” in the summary’s words, and that no one at the academy told students to stop using it as a greeting to her.

But that was “heavily contradicted” by other witness testimony, investigators said, including by two other instructors who independent of each other said they told the students to stop using the salute. Byrd appeared to overrule those instructors, investigators found.

Jeff Sandy, the West Virginia Cabinet secretary in charge of the state’s prisons, recommended that all trainees in the class photo be fired, along with an additional training academy staff member who failed to report the photo. Sandy also recommended the suspension without pay of four instructors who saw the salute and did not stop it.

Those individuals were not identified, but Justice said he approved Sandy’s recommendations.

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