Correction officer trainees in West Virginia regularly gave the Nazi salute “as a sign of respect” for their instructor in the weeks prior to the release of a photo of the cadets with arms raised that triggered widespread outrage, state investigators said in a report Monday.
That conclusion is part of a three-page executive summary released Monday detailing the state's inquiry into the controversial image that was publicly released earlier this month.
The summary determined that an unnamed number of trainees in Academy Class 18 began using the hand gesture in the second or third week of training “as a sign of respect” for their correctional academy instructor, Karrie Byrd. Other classmates then began using the gesture.
The executive summary does not mention the word “Nazi" but only refers to the cadets' action as the “hand gesture.” The cadets' faces were blurred by the state when it released the photo.
“Several cadets recognized it for its historical implications and refused to go along with the class,” the report read. “Others who knew the implications of the gesture felt pressure to fit in and joined in. Some of these class members voiced their concerns to classmates.”
After receiving the report, Republican Gov. Jim Justice announced that all 34 cadets in the class photo will be fired and four instructors will be suspended without pay. Furthermore, a total of three members — including Byrd — have been fired.
“As I said from the beginning, I condemn the photo ... in the strongest possible terms,” Justice said in a statement. “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.”
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According to the summary, Byrd told investigators that she was unaware of the hand gesture's historical and racial implications and said she thought it was a greeting. However, other interviewers seem to contradict Byrd's statement.
For example, the report found two instructors separately approached Byrd once witnessing the hand gesture being used by Academy Class 18 members. It said one instructor tried to tell Byrd and the class about the negative connotations of using a hand gesture similar to a Nazi salute. But the report summary found one cadet responded, “Look at me, I am black, and I am doing it.”
“The gesture was done with Byrd's knowledge," the report read. “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 eventually directed her class to use the hand gesture while taking a photo of the class, it said. And it added that after 10 members resisted, Byrd explicitly directed them to give the gesture. Seven of those cadets told investigators they made a fist so as to appear to comply with Byrd's demand but not directly mimic a Nazi salute — which can be seen in the photo released.
When Byrd later asked a secretary to print the photo with the caption “Hail Byrd," she was pressed by a secretary on what the class was doing, the report said. State investigators say Byrd responded with “because I'm a hardass like Hitler.”
The photo also made its way before “Capt. Daniels-Watts,” according to the report, which withheld the captain's first name. The report said the captain never addressed Byrd about the photo and did not attempt to stop the photo's distribution.
“Do I resign now or what?” Daniels-Watts asked state officials during the investigation. “I saw the picture and did nothing.”
Ultimately, investigators determined the cadets displayed “poor judgment” but concluded no one who participated in the gesture was being discriminatory.
The report concluded: “There is no dispute that the ‘Hail Byrd’ gesture and photograph were highly offensive and egregious in appearance, but the investigation did not reveal any overt motivation or intent that this was a discriminatory act towards any racial, religious, or ethnic group.”
As of Monday, only the summary had been released and not the full report. That means the names of the cadets and full names of those involved have not been made public.