Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared to go off-script during a speech before a room full of about 400 sheriffs this week, extolling the long history of “Anglo-Americans” in law enforcement. The seemingly improvised addition drew more attention than anything else he said during the three-day conference, leaving some attendees suddenly having to defend or respond on his behalf to people angered by the remark.
“The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement,” Sessions said. He clarified later, via the Justice Department, that he was simply invoking the Anglo-Saxon roots of American law enforcement. His critics, however, heard a dog whistle for white supremacy, leaving some of the sheriffs the responsibility of explaining to their constituents just what exactly what he meant.
“The latest racially-tinged comments by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions should give all people reason to worry,” wrote the NAACP in a statement. Sen. Brian Schatz from Hawaii, a Democrat, also lambasted Sessions on Twitter. “Do you know anyone who says “Anglo-American heritage” in a sentence?” wrote Schatz. “For the chief law enforcement officer to use a dog whistle like that is appalling. Best NO vote I ever cast.” “Anglo-American” started trending on Twitter.
The DOJ quickly responded with a statement chiding people for reading too far into Sessions’ word choice. “As most law students learn in their first week of their first year, Anglo-American law — also known as the common law — is a shared legal heritage between England and America,” said Ian Prior, DOJ spokesperson in a statement. “Before reporters sloppily imply nefarious meaning behind the term, we would suggest that they read any number of the Supreme Court opinions that use the term. Or they could simply put 'Anglo-American law' into Google."
Four representatives of the National Sheriff’s Association who were in the room when Sessions made those remarks sat down with VICE News the next day, revealing a wide range of interpretations about the comments.
Executive director and CEO of the association, Jonathan Thompson, who had introduced Sessions as “perhaps the finest attorney general the nation has ever had, defended the phrase.
“It’s the oldest, only elected law enforcement official in the country, and it does date back to Anglo-Saxon times,” he said. “That’s the history, that’s the origin.”
But not everyone is privy to the history of law enforcement in the United States and its British roots, and the role those early law enforcers played in creating and upholding the institution of slavery in the Americas meant Sessions’ words still didn’t sit well with critics. Some sheriffs said they were left fielding comments from constituents back home.
Sheriff David J. Mahoney of Dane County, Wisconsin acknowledged that he’d received emails from some of his constituents who were upset by Sessions’ language. “I received emails from some who took it a different direction,” said Mahoney, a Democrat. “I think that tensions are extremely high, not only in law enforcement, but in government overall.”
“I think that all of us who represent public safety have to be mindful of statements that are made and how they can impact overall perceptions,” said Mahoney. Long-term, Mahoney said, he doesn’t believe that a remark like that would hurt his reputation in his community. “The community understands what my priorities are,” Mahoney said.
Others were willing to give Sessions the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that he simply misspoke.
“Citizens judge us on how we do our job, not by someone else might say by slip of a tongue,” said Sheriff Harold W. Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas, who is currently the president of the National Sheriff’s Association. “I think that’s what it was, I don’t think [Sessions] had any animosity in regards to that statement at all.”
Sheriff Ira Edwards of Clarke County, Georgia, who is black, said that he missed the comment when it was made (he thinks he must have been checking a text or email) but was told about it later. “Someone did mention to me that they may have been a little offended,” said Edwards, who’s in his fifth term as sheriff and like Mahoney, is also a Democrat. “But that’s not who we are. And when we get back to our community, they know us.
“There’s that saying, ‘be slow to speak and quick to hear’,” Edwards added. “You never know, your words do have power.”