Qualified Immunity and Software Development

What does qualified immunity have to do with software development?  Not much.  But a couple of bills to end qualified immunity illustrate different approaches to getting things done that a software developer would have opinions on.

What is qualified immunity? It’s a doctrine that shields government officials from misconduct charges.  Like many government regulations, its has mutated well beyond its original intent. Now it shields police and other government officials from theft, violence, wanton destruction and even murder.

There are currently at least two bills to end qualified immunity in Congress. Libertarian Justin Amash has sponsored one with Democrat Ayanna Pressley.  It quickly garnered widespread  support from progressive Democrats including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Omar and even  Republican Tom McClintock.  The bill is four pages long. It deals with qualified immunity and only qualified immunity.

Not to be outdone, the House democratic old guard launched their own bill, the Justice in Policing Act.  This bill deals with at least 10 different issues and has 57 different subsections. 

Software Developer Take

What is a software developer to make of these proposals?

Among the principles which make software development successful are incremental development, granularity and loose coupling, and quick feedback loops.  These suggest that, barring compelling dependencies, it’s better to deal with a set of problems as small independent pieces.

Do the provisions of the Justice in Policing Act depend on one another?  Provisions include qualified immunity, banning chokeholds, establishing a national police misconduct registry, prohibitions on racial profiling, body camera regulations, and others.  Would ending qualified immunity help even if passed without the other provisions.  Yes, and I think we can say the same for the other provisions. 

But not everyone thinks so, and since the provisions are coupled together in one bill, there is no chance the bill will pass. Meaning we are currently unlikely to get any federal police reform whatsoever.

Incidentally because of Republican opposition, the qualified immunity bill is also unlikely to pass. But some provisions such as the police misconduct registry have bipartisan support and could pass standalone.  Getting these provisions into law would give us feedback and make clearer what needs to be done next.  It would in no way prevent later reconsideration of contentious issues like qualified immunity.  It would be MUCH preferable to getting nothing done.

But I guess bills like the Justice in Policing Act are how Congress works.  Seems that introducing bills with no chance of passage, but which set you apart from the other side, is much more important than getting things done — which has the additional risk of upsetting constituencies.  That’s how Congress works, but not how Congress should work.  Might I make the humble suggestion we need more software developers in Congress?

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