By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
I wrote a post about this incident back on December 9, 2019, just a couple of days after the story was first reported by our local newspaper here in Charleston, West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
As I wrote then, “This is the class picture from what were soon to be the most recent graduates of the entry-level training program to become correctional officers in the state of West Virginia. Not exactly the “Your Mother Would Be So Proud of You!” picture, now is it?”
And West Virginia Governor Jim Justice and most West Virginians were not thrilled either. Three weeks after Gov. Justice ordered an investigation by the director of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS), he announced that all 34 correctional officer cadets from the class and three academy staff members would be fired, and four instructors suspended without pay.
Anatomy of a “Train Wreck”
Maybe you’ve heard this before: “Every train wreck begins with a series of small events that collectively just keep getting bigger.” And this case is a classic “train wreck.” So, let’s look at how this “wreck” unfolded.
According DMAPS investigators students had begun giving the Nazi salute to their instructor, Kerrie Byrd, long before the infamous photograph was taken. According to the executive summary of the state investigation one of the fired cadets stated that the salute was a sign of respect for their instructor, Byrd.
Several class members adopted its use, while others recognized its historical implications (e.g., Hitler, Nazi Germany, genocide of the Jews, and the white supremacist movement globally) and refused to go along with it.
Byrd told investigators she had no idea of the historical or racial implications of the gesture, and thought it was simply a greeting. In the executive summary, several others disputed Byrd’s statement.
Yet, DMAPS investigators learned that students repeatedly performed the Nazi salute toward Byrd during the course of the academy. According to the report, “she encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated it.” Those investigators also determined that Byrd also overruled those who tried to stymie the practice.
Pause and Reflect
From what we’ve learned so far:
Sound about right? Now how would a similar scenario unfold in your organization tomorrow? Would your person in charge of training entry-level employees do the right thing? Would your entry-level students fear reprisal for speaking out?
The Train Continues Down the Track
But it gets worse. During their investigation, DMAPS investigators conducted 75 interviews with Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees and discovered a chilling fact: Pictures on social media of Byrd, surrounded by class members all holding their fingers above their lip in a caricature of Hitler’s iconic mustache.
How would your department’s leadership react to such a discovery? My fire service colleague, Curt Verone, is a fire chief, lawyer, and author, who has a blog of his own, Fire Law Blog. Curt has written many times about fire department employees/members, social media use, employment rights, and the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (free speech).
I encourage you to read one of his posts from 2019, Termination of Boston Firefighter for Outrageous Social Media Posts Upheld by Civil Service. This is one of Curt’s “pearls of wisdom” regarding social media use by public employees:
At the center of any case [involving social media use by public employees] is the applicability of the Pickering Balancing Test… a test created by the US Supreme Court in Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968) to evaluate whether public employee speech is entitled to First Amendment protection. Here is the simplest formulation of the Pickering Balancing Test I [Curt] have ever seen:
For public employees to have protection under the First Amendment, they must be (1) speaking on a matter of public concern (2) as a private citizen, and they must prove their interest “in commenting upon matters of public concern” outweighs the “interests of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees”
- Does your fire department have a social media use policy?
- Have your employees/members being given appropriate training and education about the policy?
- Do you periodically share information regarding cases where public employees “got in a jam” over their social use?
And Finally the Train Wrecks
Instructor Byrd was the person who took the offending photo, and according to investigators, directed the students in the photo to raise their arms in the Nazi salute. Moreover, the report states that she had to take the photo several times because several the cadets reportedly did not make the gesture until she told them to do so. (Those cadets told investigators they held up a closed fist, in lieu of an open hand, to comply with Byrd’s directives but not risk failing out of the class).
The photo was later sent to a secretary at the academy for reproduction and inclusion in each cadet’s graduation package. According to the DMAPS report, the secretary asked Byrd why everyone in the picture giving a Nazi salute, to which Byrd is reported to have replied, “They do that because I’m a hardass like Hitler.”
Later, that same secretary and two other instructors at the academy discussed the photo with a Captain Daniels-Watts (Her first name was not included in the DMAPS report but given that she had the rank of captain and Byrd was never identified by rank, I’m assuming that the captain was Byrd’s superior) at the academy, who told investigators that she told them, “Well that is going to bite us in the ass.”
Daniels-Watts would go on to tell DMAPS investigators that, while she found the picture to be horrible, she never discussed it with Byrd, did not have the pictures removed from packets issued to cadets, and never reported the situation to her supervisor.
Ever hear the adage “Bad news never gets better with age?”
After the release of the DMAPS summary report, DMAPS Director Jeff Sandy said in an interview that the behavior culminating with the photo was ultimately a case of young people who did not fully understand the implications of the salute but were not driven by hate. As reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Sandy said, “The investigation showed there was no white supremacy, no neo-Nazi, just ignorance,” he said. “I guess you can say that’s the silver lining.”
The report’s investigators wrote “…while the photograph was “highly offensive and egregious in appearance, it did not reveal any overt motivation or intent that it was a discriminatory act toward any racial, religious or ethnic group. Rather, contributing factors included poor judgment, ignorance, peer pressure and fear of reprisal.”
Really? So, what were these future corrections officers going to do when they encountered white supremacists, the Aryan Brotherhood, swastikas, Nazi salutes and other symbols of racism in the prison populations they’re charged with controlling? Ignorance and poor judgement could get them killed.