The photograph is infamous now: 34 West Virginia correction officer trainees with their faces blurred, raising their arms in an apparent Nazi salute. The photo, an official one for the class, includes the caption “Hail Byrd!” – Byrd being the name of their primary academy instructor. The photo had been copied, and there was intention to include it within graduation packets.
All recruits in the photo have since been fired, along with their primary instructor, Karrie Byrd, and two other staff members. In addition, several other instructors were suspended without pay.
Dozens of young men and women have had their career plans dashed, all because of one stupid gesture. How did this happen?
Ignoring or enabling bad behavior
Some people are quick to blame the instructor. Byrd is clearly responsible for the outcome, according to an investigation that took place after the photo came to light.
According to that report, several students started using the gesture when greeting Byrd a couple of weeks into the academy. “The gesture was done with Byrd’s knowledge,” the report read. “The investigation disclosed that she encouraged it, reveled in it, and at times reciprocated the gesture.” Further, the investigation found that eventually, Byrd directed her class to use the hand gesture while taking a photo of the class and reprimanded students who resisted joining in.
But this situation cannot possibly be the result of just one rogue instructor. Many people knew what was going on with the recruit class. A secretary who was asked to print the photo asked Byrd why the class was posing in that manner, and investigators said Byrd responded with “because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.”
The photo was also seen by a captain who never addressed Byrd about it and did not attempt to stop the photo’s distribution. “I saw the picture and did nothing,” the officer acknowledged, according to the report.
And that is exactly how things like this happen. Someone pushes a boundary and instead of immediately reining that person in, someone in authority either ignores or enables the behavior. More people join in and exaggerate the behavior, and as more people become aware of it, they also look the other way. Ego, tradition, indifference and bad judgment allow the inappropriate behavior to become normalized.
Normalization builds over time
This type of normalization cannot happen as a singular event. This incident came to light because it was so egregious. Not only was the photo widely available but it was also intended to be an official handout during a formal graduation ceremony. But according to the investigation, the behavior that led up to the photo being taken had gone on for weeks.
Jeff Sandy, secretary of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said in an interview, “If she would've said, that is inappropriate behavior; do not do that again, we would not be here today.” True. But why didn’t she say that? Why didn’t she understand that such behavior was unacceptable? She was not a new instructor. She was a product of the system she worked in – a system, by its own admission, that included other instructors who expressed concern about the gesture being used, but never followed up. And it is known that there was at least one officer with power over the instructor who knew what was going on and did nothing.
Long-lasting repercussions, even for those who resisted
Some of those others involved have been suspended or fired for their leadership failures. Byrd has been fired, an action justified not only by her actions in this incident but also by her subsequent claim that she was unaware of the hand gesture’s historical and racial implications. She claimed that she thought it was just a greeting.
But what about those 34 students? According to the report, several cadets recognized the gesture for its historical implications and refused to go along with the class during the academy. Others felt pressure to fit in and went along but voiced their concerns to classmates. When the picture was being taken, 10 members resisted but were ordered by their instructor to give the gesture. Seven of those cadets told investigators they made a fist so that they appeared to comply with Byrd’s demand without directly mimicking a Nazi salute. And even though some tried to do the right thing, they are casualties in this. The existence of such a picture of law enforcement officers just isn’t tenable in these times of instant and eternal access to all photos that have ever been posted on the internet.
These recruits were failed by their leaders, all of them, not just the ones who directly betrayed them. And who knows, perhaps some of those leaders were also failed by their role models and supervisors in the past. That’s how it usually happens – the inertia of bad behavior often outweighs individual efforts to stop it, and patterns form. After a while, it all just seems normal.
Leadership is about vigilance
Leadership is about vigilance when it comes to normalizing behavior. Sometimes it is hard to see it when you are in it, and that is why there must always be ways that people can stand up and say how they feel, expressing different points of view without fear.
That didn’t happen in this case, and the big losers were those young cadets, now perpetually blurred out from their potential futures.
About the author
Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.