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Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits onstage to address the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Conference in Washington, Feb. 12, 2018.
Commentary

About the ‘Anglo-American Heritage of Law Enforcement’

Jeff Sessions is right about the ‘heritage' of U.S. sheriffs, in more ways than one.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was technically correct when he lauded the office of sheriff as “a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement” before a gathering of those officeholders on Monday. Assuming he was speaking etymologically, the word can be traced to the Old English scirgerefa, a combination of scir or shire, and gerefa, for reeve or chief, as the “representative of royal authority in a shire.”

But heritage cuts many ways, and far closer to home than Medieval England for Alabama’s Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, III is Money, Miss. There, at the 1955 trial of the two men accused of murdering Emmett Till, defense attorney John Whitten Jr. addressed the jurors, saying: “Your [ancestors] would turn over in their graves if you found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam guilty. Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”

In that instance, racial heritage, not linguistics, was at issue, and free them they did.

It’s assumed that the nation’s highest law enforcement officer would today side with the prosecution in one of the most open-and-shut murder cases in American history. But dog whistles are enduring, and the phrase still resonates as code for white supremacy. Could Sessions not have appreciated at least a double-entendre in his invoking of the Anglo angle?

If Money, Miss., was still too distant and early in life to make an impression on him (Sessions was nine years old at the time of the Till case), perhaps a speech a decade later by former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett would have. In Sessions’ hometown of Selma during that city’s violent Bloody Sunday events, Barnett thundered on the urgency of maintaining racial purity and Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage. No ambiguity or Shakespearean lexicology there.

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Whatever his influences, Sessions’ blunder came when he departed from his prepared text. The original draft of the speech before the Florida winter meeting of the National Sheriffs’ Association concluded: “I want to close by reiterating my deep appreciation and profound thanks to all the women and men of law enforcement — federal, state, local, and tribal…Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been seen as the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and amenable to the people. The sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage.”

Instead, he dropped the mention of Native American tribal police and closed, “The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement; we must never erode this historic office.”

Again, it’s historically and linguistically correct. But it’s also an accurate racial depiction of the nation’s sheriffs. A 2017 University of California, Santa Cruz study of 3,100 counties across the country found that only 4 percent had a black sheriff at some point during the past 25 years. Even adding a smattering of Hispanic (counted as white or not) Asian and Native American sheriffs, the officeholders remain overwhelmingly white. That’s compared to 27 percent of officers of color in police departments overall.

Perhaps it’s those troubling statistics, not etymology or history, that explain Sessions’ departure from his script. What else could he say to a group of the nation’s sheriffs after looking out at every last Anglo-Saxon one of them?

Robin Washington spent many years as a daily newspaper editor and writes frequently about civil rights and criminal justice. He may be reached at robin@robinwashington.com or via Twitter @robinbirk.