Lethal Policing: Making Sense of American Exceptionalism

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Thanks to the creation of a national database of police killings, the social distribution, causes, and consequences of police violence are finally amenable to analysis. This article focuses on why the rate of police killings in the United States towers over that in other industrialized nations. Elevated police lethality is deeply rooted in two distinctive aspects of American society and culture. Police violence is both a tool and product of strategies to maintain racial segregation and inequality. However, racism cannot explain the fact that police lethality is greatest in states where African Americans are least prevalent. Elevated police killings are also rooted in America's prevailing ideology (and mythology) of self-reliance and limited government. Neoliberal ideology helped some politicians cut gaping holes in the social safety net, leaving ill-equipped and fearful police officers to deal with desperate people who lack adequate treatment and support, yet who have easy access to weapons. It also limits the legislative and regulative authority that centralized policy actors exert over policing. Nevertheless, police overreliance on deadly force is increasingly understood as a national problem requiring large-scale solutions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1109-1117
Number of pages9
JournalSociological Forum
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


  • American exceptionalism
  • Crime
  • Deadly force
  • Individualism
  • Police violence
  • Policing


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