Florida sheriffs had mixed reactions Tuesday amid backlash against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his invocation of law enforcement's "Anglo-American" heritage.
"The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement," Sessions said Monday during a National Sheriffs' Association Conference in Washington. "We must never erode this historic office."
The comments sparked a contentious debate as critics accused him of coded racism, eroding police-community relations and, in the opinion of Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, dividing Americans. Demings, who is black, said he was present at the conference and that Sessions' remarks were "met with mixed applause in a mostly Anglo crowd of American sheriffs."
"The comments were divisive and failed to acknowledge that law enforcement has been a part of American history and culture for many ethnic groups and not just Anglos," Demings said. "As leaders, we all have a responsibility to be careful that our words unite rather than divide, and the attorney general's words missed the mark."
Others, including Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was also at the conference, defended Sessions' statement as a historical reference. The word sheriff has English roots in the words shire, a historical equivalent to a county, and reeve, the leader of the shire, he said.
"There's a basis for his comment about the history of the office of the sheriff," said Gualtieri, who is white. "There was nothing I would consider in his remarks to be even arguably inappropriate or inflammatory."
The Department of Justice voiced a similar explanation Tuesday, referring in a statement to Anglo-American law as the "shared legal heritage between England and America."
"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," said spokesman Ian Prior. "Or they could simply put 'Anglo-American law' into Google."
That explanation is factually correct, said Charles Rose, a Stetson University College of Law professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy. The office of the sheriff is ingrained in common law, or the series of legal decisions over time that establish how the law should be interpreted, which flows straight from England.
But Rose said it was "dumber than a bag of hammers" to use the phrase, given its racially charged connotation in a politically divided time.
"You don't choose words that are emotionally charged in a negative fashion to deliver a positive message," he said. "We need everyone to believe in and respect the rule of law regardless of their beliefs and heritage."
Fueling the debate are past accusations of racism against Sessions — he was denied a federal judgeship in the 1980s after allegations he joked about the Ku Klux Klan, among other claims — and policies by Sessions and the Trump administration that have been called oppressive to minorities.
"There is this long list of things this administration has done and Sessions has done in one year that signal great deference to law enforcement at the expense of communities of color," said Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Bennett pointed to examples such as pulling away from federal oversight in cases of police misconduct and broadening opportunities to militarize law enforcement. Those actions, Bennett said, show Sessions was, at best, tone deaf, in his use of "Anglo-American," especially considering the word wasn't in his script.
"This does nothing to improve police-community relations," she said, "and I suspect that there has been some recognition of that given that the .?.?. term was not in the prepared remarks."
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco, who is white, wasn't present but touched on the importance of serving all in the community when asked about Sessions' comments.
"We have strived over the years, and continue to work, to make sure that every citizen in Pasco County feels a part of this organization and protected by this organization," he said through a spokesman.
In the interest of improving community relations, Bennett suggested sheriffs acknowledge how Sessions' comments will be received by those who don't know the history and who have experienced injustice at the hands of police.
"They have to concede that given the history," she said, "given that law enforcement has often been used to reinforce the racial hierarchies in this country that this is not a time to side with the attorney general."
Contact Kathryn Varn at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.