January 15, 2020 | View as webpage

One thing that keeps police leaders up at night is worrying if officers are doing the right thing while they are not being watched. If you hire right, train often and set a tone of ethical behavior from the top down, you can minimize those worries. But what about bad behavior that occurs under your nose?

West Virginia correctional leaders recently faced that situation after a correctional academy class photo showed officer trainees raising their arms in an apparent Nazi salute. The fallout has been severe: 34 recruits and three staff members fired. Careers ended. A profession’s reputation tarnished.

In today’s Leadership Briefing, Chief Joel Shults discusses why officers must stand up to peer pressure regardless of the costs, while Chief Linda Willing reviews how ego, tradition, indifference and bad judgment can allow inappropriate behaviors to become normalized.

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Nancy Perry, Police1 Editor-in-Chief
Peer pressure is not just for junior high anymore
By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

A corrections officer graduating class assembles for its class photo. Such pictures are often framed and displayed for years. The photo of a West Virginia corrections academy class #18 was going to be reproduced and put in each officer’s graduation packet, but when this picture saw the light of day, it became not a photo of proud graduates, but a roster of unemployed cadets. This photo will likely not hang on the academy wall along with the others. It is an official photo of future public servants rendering what everyone recognizes as a Nazi salute.

It was a joke, people. Just a joke. A nod to a hard-charging lead instructor whose passion she herself had compared to Hitler’s. The instructor had occasionally been greeted with the salute by a few students and apparently got a kick out of it, and the notion spread. She ordered all of the graduates to render the “Hail” salute in the graduation class photo. Five digits positioned just so. How could that cost dozens of careers?

Some sensed the weight of history behind that gesture and wanted to abstain or attempted to change the stiff-fingered salute to a raised fist instead. They were still fired along with the rest of their class, as was their instructor and two staff members.

Pressure to conform

We have all been subject to both positive and negative peer pressure. In the moment, the rewards of either are significant.

As a third-grader, I remember sitting quietly when Mrs. Edwards stepped out for a moment and the rest of the class began misbehaving. I remained stoically obedient because Mrs. Edwards would return, see me behaving and give me her classic currency of reward. I got my Tootsie Roll and was quite proud of it. Ten years later, still a well-behaved youngster, I vowed not to swear while in Army basic combat training, even though many of the march cadences included such language. Due to an observant and lip-reading drill instructor, the importance of platoon solidarity was quickly explained to me, and thereafter I joined in with the requisite poem about smashing a yellow bird’s f*&%ing head and other manly vulgarities.

It’s all about counting the cost. As a young trainee, I was cautioned about my behavior at somber scenes. People passing by didn’t want to see me smokin’ and jokin’ over a crash or crime scene. Then the Rodney King era began, and no officer went without the admonition to assume that they are being filmed every moment. Then came the reality that officers are on video every moment.

Because the profession is always under the focus of somebody’s lens, every public servant in uniform must necessarily look through that lens as well. That means setting a personal standard of accountability that calculates the long-term cost of a short-term chuckle. To focus on that goal, here are some things to think about.

What would this appear to be if taken out of context?

We all know that reading one page out of a book doesn’t tell the whole story, but what if one page or one picture was all you had? Avoid being that one page or one picture to which someone can attach an untrue narrative. That’s not always possible, but it can at least provide truth for a defense and counter-narrative. A Nazi salute will never translate well no matter what the back story.

Symbols are powerful

Think of the power of symbols in police work in affirming the high ideals of the shield and star, the American and blue line flag, the salute and volley, and Amazing Grace on bagpipes. Consider what emotions will be evoked from groups and individuals outside of the law enforcement circle when disrespectful symbols and actions are portrayed.

Although police are still generally highly regarded and trusted, Americans are steeped in suspicion of armed government agents, and history around the world confirms those suspicions. Before you strike that selfie pose or slap that bumper sticker on or choose that Halloween costume, imagine who might want to build a viral video around it.

Reject excuses

We can say it was all in fun, that it wasn’t intended for the public, that it’s none of anyone’s business, that it’s your first amendment right. And don’t ever think you can do something that no one will ever know about. Regardless of how true that may be, accompanied by a sigh and an eye roll, that won’t stop the headlines. Bad behavior tends to see the light of day at the worst possible time, even if it is years later.

Keep your eye on the Tootsie Roll

There may be a cost to standing up against peer pressure. The cadets objecting to the Nazi salute were pressured, then ordered, to participate. Had they prevailed they would have kept their careers but may have been subject to ridicule and harassment for standing up. It’s not the nail that stays down that gets hammered. If that is the price of integrity and foresight it is a risk worth taking.

Additional resources:
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Normalizing bad behavior: Recruits give Nazi salute in photo
By Linda Willing

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.

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