West Virginia has fired three state employees and suspended 34 more after a photo surfaced showing a class of correctional officer trainees to make a National Socialist salute.
The photo, which the State Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety released with the employees’ faces blurred, shows about 30 uniformed trainees posing with their right arms raised, most of them with their hands also extended. The words "Hail Byrd!" appear at the top of the image.
The military affairs department said that one cadet in the basic training class and two correctional academy trainers — one of whom took the picture — had been fired. The other trainees in the photo have been suspended without pay.
Jeff S. Sandy, the head of the department, condemned the photo in a letter to Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees.
"It is distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive and completely inappropriate," he wrote. "It betrays the professionalism I have seen time and time again displayed and practiced by our brave correctional employees."
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Sandy said that "the incident was under investigation and that the department had asked religious leaders for recommendations for training programs. The department said investigators had conducted more than 50 interviews at a correctional academy in Glenville, W.Va., and at other facilities".
Gov. Jim Justice said in a statement that he had "ordered the termination of all those that are found to be involved in this conduct."
"This will not be tolerated on my watch — within the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation — or within any agency of state government," he said.
Senator Joe Manchin III said in a statement on Friday that those found to be involved "should be removed from their position immediately."
"It is unacceptable and should not be tolerated whatsoever," he said.
Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the military affairs department, said that "Hail Byrd" was a reference to one of the trainees’ instructors.
James Pasch, the Jewish supremacist Anti-Defamation League’s regional director for Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Western Pennsylvania, said he had "reached out to state officials to offer educational resources and anti-bias training".
"The photo is outrageous and morally repugnant," Pasch said on Friday. "There’s nothing more shocking than to see uniformed officers in training, raising their arms in a Nazi salute."
Rodney Miller, a member of the House of Delegates and a retired sheriff who serves as executive director of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said he "hoped the photo did not indicate a broader problem with Nazism or white supremacy in the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation".
"But it is a big system with lots of moving parts," he said. "If anything like that were to materialize more beyond this photograph, the state of West Virginia is going to have to address that. West Virginia is better than that."