A number of West Virginia government employees were suspended Wednesday after a recent photo emerged showing them performing a Nazi salute.
The photo shows roughly 30 employees of the state’s Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety making the racist gesture, which was used to hail German dictator Adolf Hitler while he oversaw the slaughter of millions of Jews during World War II. They posed under the text “HAIL BYRD!” ― a phrase similar to the one used to salute Hitler.
The photo identifies the group as members of Basic Training Class #18, a group of correctional officers trained in October and November.
News of the suspensions broke when DMAPS cabinet secretary Jeff Sandy sent a letter to staff on Wednesday regarding the matter. Local WCHS-TV was the first to report on it Thursday morning, when the exact contents of the photo had not yet been made public.
“I have seen the photo of Basic Training Class Number 18. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” Sandy wrote. “It is distasteful, hurtful, disturbing, highly insensitive and completely inappropriate.”
He did not offer a specific number on the suspensions, only that the action had been taken against “a number” of employees.
Later Thursday, The Charleston Gazette-Mail and other outlets published the photo after obtaining it through a public records request, though DMAPS blurred the faces of the people in the photo.
Earlier, local outlets speculated the text may be a reference to the state’s former U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd (D), who was a member of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan but later denounced it.
An attorney for Gov. Jim Justice (R) later told the Gazette-Mail that the reference to “Byrd” in the photo refers to the training class’ director, a role that the state’s Department of Corrections cites as “critical for success of the program” and responsible for guiding trainees through the program.
Justice also spoke out against the contents of the photo and called for Sandy to fire all the offending employees.
“I have directed Secretary Jeff Sandy of the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety to continue actively investigating this incident and I have ordered the termination of all those that are found to be involved in this conduct,” he said in a statement. “This will not be tolerated on my watch – within the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation – or within any agency of state government.”
One of the Jewish members of the state’s legislature, Delegate Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha) said the people in the photo should not be correctional officers, a job which places them in a position of immense power over others.
“At best this is an extreme lack of judgement for people who have a lot of power over other people’s lives,” he told the Gazette-Mail. “At worst, it’s just blatant anti-Semitism, and it’s disgusting.”
Photos of government employees displaying racist imagery aren’t uncommon, though most instances reported on in the last year have concerned older images. The most high-profile of those scandals in 2019 concerned Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who has faced calls for his resignation since February when a photo of him wearing blackface in a 1984 yearbook emerged.