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Holocaust education planned after WV jail guard Nazi salute

Anthony Izaguirre

Charleston, W. Va. – West Virginia plans to begin training its corrections department staff about the Holocaust after a photograph of correction officer cadets giving Nazi salutes led to dozens of firings and widespread outrage, officials said Tuesday.

A spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said the leader of the regional Anti-Defamation League chapter has agreed to draft the training materials and coursework. He said the agency is “committed to taking all steps necessary to accomplish this.”

A photo surfaced in early December of a West Virginia corrections officer trainee class giving what appears to be the Nazi salute. More than 30 trainees seen in the photo were being fired, along with their instructor.

The move comes a day after Gov. Jim Justice announced that more than 30 trainees seen in the photo were being fired, along with their instructor. He made the announcement after a report was released detailing how the instructor “reveled” in the salute and encouraged the class to perform the gesture. Four other instructors are being suspended without pay.

“This kind of behavior will not be tolerated on my watch in any agency of state government,” Justice, a Republican, said in a statement Monday.

The photograph, which shows the trainees with their arms raised and faces blurred, was released in early December as officials promised a swift probe of the matter. The image also includes a line of text that reads “Hail Byrd,” a reference to instructor Karrie Byrd.

On Monday, the state released a a summary of its internal investigation, which found that an unspecified number of trainees in Academy Class 18 began using the gesture early on in their training “as a sign of respect” for Byrd. Soon after, other class members also began flashing the salute.

Byrd, who taught the course on “Cultural Diversity,” told investigators that she was “completely unaware of the historical or racial implications of the gesture and reported it was simply a greeting,” according to the summary.

The investigation lists multiple sources contradicting Byrd’s statements. Two other instructors told Byrd and the class that the gesture was inappropriate but Byrd said there was nothing wrong with it, according to the report.

“The gesture was done with Byrd’s knowledge,” the document 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.”

A voicemail message could not be left at a phone number listed for Byrd in public records.

Byrd eventually directed her class to use the hand gesture while taking a photo of the group, though the image had to be taken several times because not everyone was giving the salute, the report said. 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.

After the image was taken, a secretary asked Byrd what the class was doing, the report said. State investigators wrote Byrd responded with “look there is nothing wrong with it, we have people of all colors and backgrounds in the picture and everyone of them are participating.” Byrd then told the secretary to caption the image “Hail Byrd,” and said “that’s why they do that 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.”

Byrd made a little over $36,000 from the state in 2018, according to the most recently available employee compensation records.