Freudian slip? Sessions remarks on "Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement"

"The [sheriff] is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement"

By Keith A. Spencer

Published February 12, 2018 9:12PM (EST)

Jeff Sessions (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Jeff Sessions (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

In his speech to an audience of law enforcement officers, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made eyebrow-raising comments about the history and function of law enforcement in the United States, comments that seem to profess that the history of law enforcement is a means of reinforcing white supremacy.

As NBC reported on Monday:

"The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. We must never erode this historic office. I know this, you know this, we want to be partners, we don’t want to be bosses, we want to strengthen you and help you be more effective in your work," Sessions told the National Sheriffs' Association.

Sessions is more accurate than he realizes. As Dr. Victor Kappeler, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University, writes, "The institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing." Kappeler continues:

 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. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation's first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.

After an initial outcry, the DOJ attempted to walk back Sessions' comments late Monday in a statement to CNN. A spokesperson for the DOJ said that the term “Anglo-American law” is commonly used by legal scholars.

It seems probable that the Justice Department was aware of the potential for Sessions' remarks to stir outrage. The evidence for that stems from the fact that the version of the speech that the Justice Department initially released on Monday redacted the words "Anglo American," as NBC noted.

Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a senior editor at Salon who edits Salon's science/health vertical. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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Attorney General Black Lives Matter Donald Trump Jeff Sessions Law Enforcement White Supremacy