Terence Keel Discusses the Political & Racial Implications of Pepper Spray Use Amongst Law Enforcement

ISG faculty Terence Keel was recently featured in the History of Science Society’s 114th Volume of their Journal “Isis“, a publication featuring scholarly essays, articles, and analyses.

His article, entitled “Oleoresin Capsicum: The Racial-Political History of a Ubiquitous Chemical Munition,” analyses the use of pepper spray in regular law enforcement practices and its correlation with racial dynamics and politics.

Read the full article here.

Listen to Keel’s interview about the paper on the Areva Martin show on KBLA here.



Oleoresin capsicum (OC) is a substance contained in capsicum peppers that produces a range of physiological responses in mammals, including inflammation and respiratory constriction. It is also the active ingredient in the most widely used chemical munition in the United States. OC-based pepper sprays are now issued to police officers by nearly every law enforcement agency in the country. Police use of pepper spray is supported by an ostensibly evidence-based consensus that OC exposure presents no significant risk of lethal injury. This essay examines the peculiar durability of that nonlethality consensus in the face of mounting contradictory evidence. It traces the trajectory of European science that links race and capsaicin sensitivity from colonization to slavery to the twentieth century, while also narrating the emergence of OC-based pepper spray as a distinct and highly desirable category of police weapon. It concludes by exposing medicolegal death examination practices that continually rehabilitate the nonlethality consensus by naturalizing deaths caused by or linked to OC exposure.


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