Jeff Sessions telling sheriffs they’re part of the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement” was an unintentional but important historical reference.

On Monday, Attorney General Sessions delivered prepared remarks at the National Sheriff’s Association winter conference. While the speech was written in advance of the event, Sessions’ “Anglo-American” remarks were not part of the script. As the Washington Post pointed out, the transcript of the speech read “the sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage.”

The Post‘s explanation of the speech provides useful context to Sessions’ remarks, as the office of sheriff originates from Anglo-Saxon England, combining the words “shire” (the medieval term for “county”) and “reeve,” which means “guardian.”

“By the time that the American Colonies were being settled, the Office of Sheriff was declining in England, but the move across the Atlantic brought new energy and importance to the Office,” University of Denver law professor David Kopel wrote in the Washington Post in 2014. “The Americans restored what they considered to be the ancient Anglo-Saxon practice of popular election of Sheriffs.”

However, because “Anglo” is defined by as “a white American of non-Hispanic descent,” many took Sessions’ remarks as racist, believing that Sessions was implying that the law enforcement profession was inherently for whites. Sessions’ history of perpetuating institutional racism as a U.S. Attorney in Alabama — which got him disqualified from a federal judicial appointment in 1986 by a Republican senate — certainly didn’t help him as he stumbled trying to make a historical reference.

However, there is an ugly truth to the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement” comment that everyone seems to have missed — including Sessions. And that is the fact that modern policing originated from the slave patrols of the antebellum South. In the 18th century, these slave patrols consisted of formerly enslaved white people — usually Irish and Italian immigrants in indentured servitude — being deputized by wealthy plantation owners to hunt down and capture runaway slaves.

As anti-racism lecturer Tim Wise explained, this was a way of disrupting class solidarity among poor whites and blacks, and to give previously disenfranchised whites power over blacks to make them sympathize with rich white plantation owners rather than the black slaves escaping their cruelty. In a 2014 article, Dr. Victor Kappeler — dean of the Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) School of Justice Studies — further expounded on how slave patrols morphed into modern police departments following the Civil War (the fact that this study came from EKU is all the more remarkable considering that the university houses the Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training, which was the first accredited law enforcement training academy in the United States).

“Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments, were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities. For example, New England settlers appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans (National Constable Association, 1995), the St. Louis police were founded to protect residents from Native Americans in that frontier city, and many southern police departments began as slave patrols.”

While it’s correct to say that Jeff Sessions wasn’t being racist in saying that sheriffs carry on the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement,” it’s also correct to say that modern law enforcement traces its roots to Americans of Anglo-Saxon ancestry oppressing black people trying to free themselves from the cruel institutional racism of their era. Although you probably shouldn’t hold your breath to wait for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to say that to a roomful of cops.


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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