The thick blue line

I wrote yesterday about losing my comfort zone. One of the areas of my disillusionment has been realizing that my supposedly “meritocratic” industry is actually pretty deeply sexist.

This was disturbing, but hey, at least I wasn’t part of the problem. Then I heard some people saying something really discomfiting: that if you’re tacitly accepting the boys-will-be-boys, death-by-a-thousand-cuts bias in the industry, you’re still part of the problem.

Me? Part of the problem? Preposterous! Rude! Insulting!

I thought back though. Back to my first programming job. Do I remember the guys making derogatory remarks about female coworkers when they were alone? Yep, I do. Did I say anything? Nope. I was an impressionable newbie, in my late teens or early twenties, getting my first taste of the industry, staying quiet around the more experienced engineers. Did it rub me wrong? Sure. But I didn’t say anything.

This got me wondering if there were other instances in my career where I had stood by and tacitly reinforced systemic bias. It was hard to come up with examples; but then, for many years, I wasn’t specifically looking for it. More recently, I’ve made an effort to call out sexist attitudes when I see them.

What are the worst possible consequences if I fail to call out sexist behavior in my industry? In most cases, it’s that a woman’s career might be held back and she’ll feel disillusioned and frustrated. Which is pretty bad.

But there’s another line of work where the consequences of inaction are far more serious. When police misbehave, people’s lives are often permanently impacted. They can face prosecution and jail time for crimes they didn’t commit. Their reputations may be tarnished or ruined. They experience emotional and physical trauma. In the worst cases, people suffer permanent injury or are killed when bad cops abuse their power, and good cops do nothing.

Police misconduct happens daily in this country. Usually, it only comes to light because a citizen was filming, not because another cop turned them in.

The loyalty and protectiveness of cops toward their fellow officers is no secret. Every anonymous interview I’ve ever read with a law enforcement officer includes stories of “bad cops” doing bad things… things the “good cop” disapproved of, but didn’t report. Any cop will tell you that one of the principal rules American police live by is: we protect our own.

Heck, this is so well known it’s a trope in movies and TV. Anyone who has ever watched a cop show knows that cops may have their disagreements, but everyone hates Internal Affairs.

And we’re silently complicit too. Because we watch the cop drama on TV, and we root for the cop bashing some hoodlum’s head into a door while his partner looks on, because they know he’s guilty and he knows where the drugs are stashed.

“But Avdi, the police are like a military unit, fiercely loyal to each other in the face of constant attack!”

First off, let’s dispense with the idea that cops should get a pass because they are in the most danger. On the list of dangerous jobs, “police officer” doesn’t even make the top ten. By that logic, the people who provide you with tuna fish sandwiches are more deserving of slack and respect than the cops.

Secondly, are you really saying you want our police to think of themselves as soldiers in occupied territory? In many countries, police regard themselves as community members, not as warriors. And it works. There are fewer shootings, and less distrust of police.

We know the line. It gets trotted out every time there is a major confrontation between police and citizenry. It goes like this: “there are always a few bad apples, but the vast majority of police are good, and deserve our respect”.

I think it’s more accurate to say that there are always a few bad apples, surrounded by a majority of police who may individually try to do the right thing, but who still live by the code: we protect our own. And by living by that code, they enable the bad cops. And they enable the good cops who just made one bad call, and then another one, and then another.

There are a few cops who can’t stand the system, and speak up. They are usually to be found as ex-cops, because they’ve been forced out.

It’s not enough to be individually good. It’s not enough in software engineering, let alone is it enough in a line of work that gives a person the power of life, death, and incarceration over other human beings. “Good cops” are complicit so long as they tolerate bad cops, and protect them through inaction.

So no, I cannot automatically give my support to the “thin blue line”. I can give my support to cops who see themselves as members of the community first, not as cops first. And while I’d love to see evidence otherwise, from what I’ve seen, those cops are the exception, not the rule.

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