Accuracy in Media

Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired up the outrage machine Monday when he spoke of “Anglo-American heritage” of law enforcement in remarks to the National Sheriffs’ Association.

“I want to thank every sheriff in America,” Sessions said. “Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process. The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”

Some mainstream media outlets, including the Washington Post, noted the term appears regularly in case law and that “’Anglo-American’ law – also known as common law – is a widely used term in the legal system that refers to the shared legal roots of England and the United States.”

But others were quick to throw the racism card at the former senator from Alabama. Slate led the way.

“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,” its story read.

Sessions may have been more right than he realizes, the article continued, even though Sessions was not talking about racism or white supremacy.

“The institution of slavery and control of minorities, however, were two of the more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing,” it quoted a professor from Eastern Kentucky University as saying.

“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, 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.”

And what does all or any of this have to do with Sessions and his remarks to the sheriffs about the shared legal history of the United States and Great Britain?

It is not made clear. But Salon does suggest both that the Department of Justice “walked back” Sessions’ remarks and that it expected trouble from them. Proof of the first was a statement in answer to reporters’ questions from a Justice spokesman:

“As most law students learn in the first week of their first year, Anglo-American law – also known as the common law – is a shared legal heritage between England and America. The sheriff is unique to that shared legal heritage. 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.”

Its proof of the latter is “the fact that the version of the speech that the Justice Department initially released on Monday redacted the words ‘Anglo-American,’ as NBC noted.”

The phrase does not appear in the prepared remarks. It says Sessions will say “The sheriff is a critical part of our legal heritage.”

But neither explanation holds up. The statement from the Justice Department explains Sessions’ use of the term. It does not withdraw it or cast doubt on it in any way. And the fact that he veered ever so slightly from prepared remarks happens all the time and does not suggest anything untoward at all … especially to utter a phrase an attorney such as Sessions would not find objectionable anyway.

The headline on the Salon story reads: “Freudian slip? Sessions remarks on ‘Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement’”

Freudian slip by Sessions? More like a Pavlovian response from Salon?

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