None of our beeswax

So Mayor Bloomberg let one of his deputies quit “to pursue private-sector interests” when in fact the deputy had to leave because he’d been arrested elsewhere for domestic violence, though the charges were promptly dropped. Good for him! “Transparency” is properly about public issues and actions, not about private lives.

Stephen Goldsmith resigned a month ago as New York’s Deputy Mayor for Operations. At the time, he and Mayor Bloomberg said he was quitting to pursue some private-sector opportunities.

That wasn’t true. In fact, he quit because the Washington, DC, police had arrested him on a charge of domestic violence. After two nights in jail, he was released without any charges filed. DC has a “mandatory arrest” policy: once a call has been made, the police have no discretion about locking up the person accused, even if – as in this case – the person who made the call doesn’t want an arrest made and denies that any violence occurred.

At the end of last week, the New York Post broke the story, which was then picked up by the New York Times and other outlets. Margaret Goldsmith, who called the police about her husband’s conduct, says it was all a “misunderstanding” – “I wanted Steve to leave the house and was too tired to deal with it by myself” – prompted in part by two sleepless nights, and has (apparently) said under oath not only that there was no violence in this instance but that there’s never been any violence in the relationship. Goldsmith’s first wife says he was never violent with her, either, and finds the charge inconsistent with the man she knows.

Now we’re into the second round of stories, in which Mayor Bloomberg is accused of a “cover-up” for allowing Goldsmith to leave without announcing the arrest.

I call bullsh*t.

Of course it’s impossible, from the outside, to know what actually happened that evening. Clearly there was an argument, in the course of which Margaret Goldsmith said to her husband, “I should have put a bullet through you years ago.” She tried to make a phone call; he tried to stop her; eventually she called the police.

It’s possible that the police “misunderstood,” or that they merely applied the mandatory-arrest policy without reference to whatever they did or didn’t believe. It’s also possible that there was an actual act of domestic assault – perhaps Goldsmith did, in fact, shove his wife – and that the victim (like so many others) is now recanting for her own reasons (concern for the batterer, consequences to herself).

In this context, the report of the first wife deserves, it seems to me, considerable weight; it’s conceivable either that he was violent toward her and she, too, is covering it up or that he suddenly turned to domestic violence at age 64, but neither seems likely. Margaret Goldsmith suffers from lupus; both the disease, and the steroids often prescribed to treat it, can have mental-health side-effects. That makes it a little easier to believe that she might have called the police in the absence of any actual violence.

But why should any of this be the business of anyone save the couple? Stephen Goldsmith does not stand accused of any crime. He is no longer a public official. The incident did not take place in New York City, where the Mayor’s influence, or Goldsmith’s powers overseeing the police department, might have been brought to bear to sweep criminal activity under the rug. I’m far from a Bloomberg fan, but it seems to me the Mayor acted with decency, and without any disregard of his public duties, in trying to allow one of his aides to leave without further humiliation for himself or his family.

Yes, there’s a public interest to be served in publicizing the evil of domestic violence. But that does not, it seems to me, justify applying the principle of guilty until proven innocent, even to a Republican. If Goldsmith had insisted on staying in his job, transparency would have demanded that the fact of the arrest be made public. But once he’d decided to quit, his private affairs became, once again, properly private.

As to the demand by Manhattan borough president (and likely mayoral candidate) Scott Stringer for City Council hearings: it’s good to know that New York doesn’t have any real problems, and can afford to waste time investigating imaginary ones.

Full disclosure: We’ve never been close – I hadn’t, for example, known that he’d left the NYC job, or anything about his marital history – but I’ve known Goldsmith since he was the Marion County (Indianapolis) prosecutor and a participant in a series of Kennedy School meetings on the role of prosecution in crime control. In that role, he was smart, thoughtful, and progressive (in the older sense of that term). Still, I’m under no particular personal obligation here; my interest is in the conduct of the press and politicians (and, secondarily, in the wisdom of “mandatory arrest” laws).

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “None of our beeswax”

  1. If a charge against a public official is serious enough for him to be forced to leave his job on account of it, it is serious enough for the public to know. These are the wages of being a public official.

  2. That’s one way to look at it. Another is that if the possibility of keeping the charges more or less under wraps is an incentive for the public official to resign quickly it’s in the public interest to do so. This particular case has some special circumstances – it occurred in a jurisdiction where neither Mr. Goldsmith or Mayor Bloomberg necessarily have special influence to bring to bear and no charges were filed. It would obviously be unwise if not impossible to keep things quiet if either of those things weren’t true.

  3. I don’t think Bloomberg was trying to keep the charges from coming to light. He knew they would come out anyway. He just felt that under these circumstances he didn’t need to be the one bringing them to light. But he does deserve criticism for lying about the reason when he could have merely been vague (e.g. “personal reasons”). I’m also a little uncomfortable with the appearance of sweeping domestic violence under the rug. As Mark noted, too many missing facts to have a strong opinion one way or the other.

  4. Curious to know more about what you think of mandatory arrest laws.

    I really know little about domestic violence law. It seems to me that, while you will sometimes have the absurd outcome of someone perfectly innocent getting hauled off because the partner overreacted, from what I understand there’s a real concern about the abuser browbeating his victim into recanting when the cops show up, insisting “it was nothing”, and then resuming the beatings when the cops depart. If that really is a common concern, separating the antagonists for a night would very possibly defuse the situation (or allow the victim in a seriously abusive situation the opportunity to seek real help).

    So I’d just be interested in a little more detail about these things.

    BTW: He spent *two* nights in jail? What’s up with that? If the incident was really much ado about nothing, why the second night behind bars?

  5. ResumeMan asks an excellent question. Answer: he was arrested Saturday night, and the courts are closed on weekends. If he’d been busted Friday night, he still wouldn’t have gotten out until Monday morning. (If convenience stores can stay open 24/7, why can’t courts? But that’s a longer story.)

    As to what I think of the laws: In general, forbidding officials to use sensible discretion is a bad idea. In the case of domestic violence, where perpetrators have ways of pressuring victims, there’s a strong argument for taking the decision away from the complainant once the complaint has been made, especially when the alternative may be having to come back and pick up the corpse.

    Note – this isn’t widely known – in most jurisdictions mandatory arrest only applies if the person complained of is present when the police arrive. So a member of your household calls 9-1-1 and says you’ve been violent, don’t wait around to “tell your side of the story.” Leave. Sleep elsewhere. Your car is more comfortable than a jail cell. That’s good advice whether you’re innocent or guilty, since leaving eliminates the risk of escalation even where there isn’t such a law. And if all the people subject to mandatory arrest understood this simple fact, the cost of the policy would go way down.

    In effect, that would mean that anyone in a household could force anyone else to leave for the day just by calling the cops. Not the worst outcome in the world.

    In terms of the current situation, it means that you can’t point to the fact of the arrest as showing that the violence happened, or even that the cops believed it happened.

  6. I think that this link about the process whereby victims of domestic violence come to recant might be useful read. (The study itself is linked in the release but is apparently behind a paywall.)

  7. When I was working in the preventing violence against women field in the 1980s, we all wanted mandatory arrest. I was therefore distressed to hear recently that there is some evidence that mandatory arrest makes retaliatory violence worse, and some feminist activists are now trying to get it undone. Disheartening.

  8. What Clark said. As for mandatory arrest, there is probably a subset of men for whom being arrested makes retaliation more likely, but there is also a large subset of men for whom being arrested is a game changing consequence that makes future violence less likely. I suppose at this late date, police are unlikely to go back to the old days of not taking domestic violence seriously, but still, lots of women who are beaten are strong enough to call the police when they are facing imminent harm, but not strong enough to go through with an arrest once they feel safe. At some point, there is a PUBLIC interest in making men face consequences for beating their spouses, regardless of what the spouse wants. I say that as a domestic abuse advocate for some years.

    As for Mrs. Goldsmith, what a prize she must be, summoning the police in Washington D.C. of all places to help her settle a non-violent domestic dispute over whether her hubbby could spend the night in his own house. It might have occurred to her that, not only do the police have much better things to do, but that she could leave and spend the night in a hotel if she so wanted to be away from her husband.

    As for Bloomberg: he should not have lied. He could have said that he had no comment or no specific reasons would be given, but he should not have lied.

    Isn’t the ruling class grand?

  9. I would add about my snarky comments re Mrs. Goldsmith, they only apply if she really did lie to the police. I actually have some serious questions about whether someone would lie, but perhaps “exaggerate” is a better characterization of what she did.

    Also, Mark might do well to remember the recent kerfluffle involving Governor Paterson and his aide — over the “assistance” he gave him in trying to evade the consequences of a domestic violence charge brought by his girlfriend. It seems that public officials might go out of their way to at least not dissemble about domestic violence allegations made against members of their staff, given that recent history.

  10. One more p.s., regarding discretion — obviously, there is still discretion within the system for whether a man would face actual charges, but the real question with arrests is whether policemen in the line of duty are in a good position to exercise that kind of discretion, first, and whether it unduly puts police in the middle of what can be some of the most volatile and dangerous disputes. Knowing that they have to make an arrest greatly simplifies their job because they don’t have to get to the bottom of the story right there on the spot, or start negotiating with people who are frequently hysterical and intoxicated, not to mention, have guns lying around the house. You arrest the guy if he is there and the situation is de-escalated. Not a 100% solution but way better than the way it used to be.

  11. I hate to sound crazy, but I also question whether throwing someone out of work is the best way to reform them. I would be much more in favor of the police making the abuser move out of the dwelling for a few months and go to intensive therapy (scheduled around work), if that were at all possible. I’m sure most beaters are much more afraid of having to talk about their childhood than they are of jail.

    But Mark, what do you think of this? You must have some ideas about how to get people to use their words.

  12. My brother, retired cop, suggests that the right answer is normally to arrest the woman. It assures her safety, and she really really doesn’t like being arrested, and will do nearly anything to avoid having the police called again. The husband/male live-in really really doesn’t want to stay home with the kids, and will do nearly anything to avoid having the police called again.

    Rather a few of his trouble makers were so impressed by that approach that they moved out of town.

  13. she really really doesn’t like being arrested, and will do nearly anything to avoid having the police called again.

    Does that include enduring future beatings by her spouse?

    This sounds like the solution if the problem is defined as “domestic violence causes people to call police”.

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