Domestic violence laws might be doing more harm than good for some feuding mates
The news that Paul Simon and Edie Brickell were both arrested for disorderly conduct after police were called to their Connecticut home on Sunday April 27 came as a shock to many. For one, he’s 72 and she’s 47, not exactly the prime fighting years. Then there’s the whole folksy vibe the two are known for; headline writers made much sport with their peacenik song titles. And perhaps to prove their harmony, Brickell uploaded an affectionate song the couple had recorded together on her Song of The Day website on April 30: “I’d Like to Get to Know You.”
But despite their age and long marriage and history of being tranquil types, police still arrested them: why?
Because it’s the law. Their legal tangles are the unintended result of legislation that was introduced in order to ensure that law enforcement was treating incidents of domestic violence seriously. Years ago, police would simply separate the couple or take the offending party out for a quiet chat. This sometimes led to chronic spouse abusers simply being delivered back to their victims to continue the abuse. It occasionally led to homicides. So, many states, including Connecticut, mandated that if the police are called to a domestic dispute and there has been violence, there has to be an arrest.
While nobody wants to minimize domestic violence, one of the authors of the study that led to a wholesale introduction of mandatory arrests is backing away from mandatory arrests as a method of dealing with the issue. Lawrence Sherman, now the Director of the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge recently released a report that suggested that arrests can do the victim more harm than good. “Changing your position in democracies has gotten very difficult,” says Sherman. “But as John Maynard Keynes said: when my information changes, I alter my conclusions.” He’s now much less supportive of mandatory arrests.
Cases like the Simon and Brickell fracas throw a different light on the issue. Brickell took the blame for the tiff which apparently turned into a shoving match, telling CNN that she started it. “I got my feelings hurt and I picked a fight with my husband,” she said in a statement, adding, in what we presume is a sarcastic tone, “The police called it disorderly. Thank God it’s orderly now.” Simon’s lawyer, Allan Cramer, also downplayed the fight: “It was over not much,” he said. “On a scale from one to 10, it was a one.”
But as a cautionary tale, the Simon-Brickell brouhaha could go both ways. One the one hand, spousal abusers now know they’re likely to get arrested for even minor domestic disturbances. And that may stay their hand, although since alcohol is so often the catalyst, it’s unlikely such judiciousness is an option on the behavioral menu at the time. But on the other hand, the public exposure and opprobrium the singers got for what appears to be a minor incident might dissuade real abused spouses from calling the cops and seeing a spouse hauled away in cuffs for all the neighborhood to see.