State officials were quick to condemnation but noncommittal on transparency Friday in handling the fallout from a recently discovered photo of a class of correctional officers presenting the Nazi salute.
The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety fired three “individuals” and suspended 34 others without pay as part of its investigation, according to a news release.
However, neither Gov. Jim Justice nor DMAPS Secretary Jeff Sandy would give firm word on whether the state will release its investigation and an unredacted photo. Authorities released a photo Thursday in response to a public records request that blurred out the faces of those involved.
Justice claimed a narrow perspective of his powers as governor as they relate to identifying the correctional officer trainees who offered the Nazi salute.
“I don’t know the legalities for what I can do, as far as releasing the names and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know the technicalities of what I can do through human resources, or whatever, like that,” Justice said at a news conference at the Capitol on Friday. “But, at the same time, those people need to suffer the consequences of their deeds.”
The salute itself was originally used to pay homage to Adolf Hitler, who directed the slaughter of millions of Jews and others during the Holocaust. Since World War II, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist organizations have adopted its use, making it the most common white supremacist hand sign in the world, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
While Justice offered a forceful condemnation of the act, he said he has to temper his personal feelings with the power of his office.
“You’ve got to understand, I’m not the king. I’m not God,” he said. “I’m your governor.”
Sandy took a similar tack. He said the department is balancing public safety against the public interest of the identities of the employees.
He said no one who offered the salute should be able to serve in law enforcement and that the department’s Inspector General’s Office has conducted more than 50 relevant interviews.
While Sandy said the report will be “fantastic,” he said the decision of whether to release it is “above my pay grade.”
Regardless, Justice said people “can’t sympathize with stupidity” and that those who displayed the salute need to be held accountable.
“If somebody is willing to do that, then, really and truly, they need to be suffering the consequences,” he said.
The DMAPS release states that disclosure of specifics, like names and disciplinary status, is pending.
In the face of several high-profile lawsuits alleging wrongful actions from correctional officers, the Nazi salute photo, and continuing lawsuits and settlements against the West Virginia State Police, both Justice and Sandy said there’s no culture problem at DMAPS.
As news of the situation rippled beyond state lines, two interest groups weighed in.
James Pasch, a spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that counters anti-Semitism, said the ADL’s regional office has been in contact with DMAPS to offer anti-bias training and resources.
“This photo is outrageous and morally repugnant,” Pasch said. “There’s nothing more shocking than to see uniformed officers in training raising their arms in a Nazi salute. There’s simply no justification for this act or the message it sends.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, called for the firing of all those involved.
“This blatant act of anti-Semitism and hate must be repudiated by relevant authorities through actions, not just words,” CAIR Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper said.