Close Enough For Cops

In a post on Facebook, Charles Belk recounts this crazy thing that happened on the way from a restaurant to his car on Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills.  To appreciate it, it’s necessary to know a few things about Belk.

I was a well educated American citizen that had received a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California, an MBA from Indiana University (including a full Consortium Fellowship to business school) and an Executive Leadership Certificate from Harvard Business School.

Impressive, certainly.

I was a Consultant for the NAACP, a film and tv producer, a previous VP of Marketing for a wireless application company, VP of Integrated Promotions for a marketing agency, ran Community Affairs for the Atlanta Hawks, was the Deputy Director of Olympic Village Operations for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, was a Test/Quality/Mfg Engineering Manager for IBM and was a Bond Trader on Wall street.

Accomplished, obviously.

[T]hroughout my entire life I have been very active in serving the communities that I have lived in, including Chapter President and National PR Chair for NSBE, a USC Student Senator, a USC Trojan Knight, a USC Engineering Student Council Member, a USC Black Students Council Member, and a Resident Assistant; as well as a founding board member of the RTP NBMBAA, a member of Durham County Transportation Advisory Board, Durham City / County Planning Commission, Atlanta House of Love for the Homeless Board, Cobb County Transportation Advisory Board, Georgia CASA Board, United Way of Greater Atlanta VIP Selection Committee, Jomandi Theater Board, Silver Lake Film Festival Board, Downtown LA Film Festival Board, Chaka Khan Foundation Fundraising Dinner Committee, and the USC Black Alumni Association Board.

Dedicated, for sure.

 I was at one of the finest hotels in their city, handling celebrity talent at a Emmy Awards Gifting Suite, as part of business as usual, and, invited to attend a VIP Emmy pre-party that very night in their city.

Respected by those who knew him.  But Charles Belk was one more thing: tall, bald head, black male.  And that cursory description, which would likely describe, oh, say a few million people, was sufficient for the police to seize him and turn his walk to his car into his worst nightmare. Hell, anybody’s worst nightmare.

Within seconds, I was detained and told to sit on the curb of the very busy street, during rush hour traffic.

Within minutes, I was surrounded by 6 police cars, handcuffed very tightly, fully searched for weapons, and placed back on the curb.

Within an hour, I was transported to the Beverly Hills Police Headquarters, photographed, finger printed and put under a $100,000 bail and accused of armed bank robbery and accessory to robbery of a Citibank.

Within an evening, I was wrongly arrested, locked up, denied a phone call, denied explanation of charges against me, denied ever being read my rights, denied being able to speak to my lawyer for a lengthy time, and denied being told that my car had been impounded…..All because I was mis-indentified as the wrong “tall, bald head, black male,” … “fitting the description.”

Nearly six hours later, with the help of “Robin Lola Harrison of the NAACP Hollywood Bureau, Robert Dowdy and Attorney Jaaye Person-Lynn,” Belk was cut loose.  As it turned out, the local cops and the FBI (it was, after all, a bank robbery) finally decided to take a peek at the video of the perp, which was clearly not Belk, after Belk’s advocates demanded it.

What I don’t get………WHAT I DON”T GET, is, why, during the 45 minutes that they had me on the curb, handcuffed in the sun, before they locked me up and took away my civil rights, that they could not simply review the ATM and bank’s HD video footage to clearly see that the “tall, bald headed, black male”… did not fit MY description.

All things considered, Belk is pretty darned understanding about all this, reflective of the fact that he’s a good guy, a law-abiding guy, who strives to give police the benefit of the doubt.  His challenge is to why, having arrested him, they didn’t then make the minimal effort of ascertaining whether there was any possibility whatsoever that he was the bad guy.  He gave them a free 45 minutes, as he sat cuffed and surrounded by cops on a street where people he knew, with whom he did business and socialized, could stare.

He could just as well have spent a few days, maybe even months, detained while his attorney argued the point with prosecutors who were assured by their hard-bitten cops they had the right man, and a judge who shrugged with agnosticism as he assumed they wouldn’t be prosecuting Belk if he didn’t do it.

Eventually, someone would have watched the tape, provided he wasn’t coerced into confessing with some lie about how they would let him go home if only he told the truth. Or told by a lawyer that he had to plead guilty, even though his only crime was letting the meter run out on his parked car, or face decades in prison.  Assuming he wasn’t subsumed in a Kafka novel, someone would have realized that this “tall, bald head, back male” wasn’t that “tall, bald head, black male.”  And he would be released, to find his life, world and reputation in chaos.

A description so worthless, so cursory as “tall, bald head, black male,” might be sufficient for a Terry stop, just an inquiry as to who he was so that they could clear him of suspicion, but it should never have sufficed to strip him of his constitutional right to walk down Wilshire to put a quarter in the meter on LaCienega.

Edit to add: It’s not like cops would be crazy enough to stop a car full of children at gunpoint because it was, say, burgundy, or maybe tan, or beige, or just like a gazillion other cars, right?

Of course, as any cop can explain, he could have been armed and dangerous, a bank robber, you know, and it would have put the police officer at terrible risk to ask Belk who he was, where he was going, with the explanation of why they were interfering with a person’s right to be left alone. So they were left with no choice. At least none that would have satisfied both the purpose of catching someone who fit this mind-boggling overbroad description while making sure that no cop was harmed in the process.

As for the harm done Charles Belk in the process?  Hey, that’s the price of living in a free society.

37 thoughts on “Close Enough For Cops

  1. william doriss

    Life is good. White people get arrested too, and get to stand on the side of the road in handcuffs, looking stewpid, while the world passes them by,… providing of course that they venture into the “wrong” neighborhood/s. Just sayin’.

      1. william doriss

        Is that a question, or a statement? I’m not here to argue the point [SHG below], but “just sayin’!”
        There’s the right way, the wrong way and the Army/Marine Corps way! All debts get paid, either by the borrower or the lender. And as Donald Rumsfeld reminds us, “Sh!t happens!” It happens everyday to somebody somewhere.
        However, when it happens to you or a loved-one, it’s horrible irregardless of race, color, creed or religion, or sex for that matter. Just because this Belk fellow is well-educated, well-credentialed, and/or well-heeled does not make it any worse or any better?!? God loves all of children. There are plenty of abuses and mistakes we never hear about; or, having heard about them, we just move on.

        1. Wrongway

          you mentioned the ‘white’ word.. & I thought,”so what!? that doesn’t make it right either..” if you took my comment personally, i don’t understand why..
          My comment wasn’t to bash the racial profiling.. (which I do believe happens).. but to question the tactics/policies/procedures of the police no matter who/where/when they are dealing with ‘anyone’.. it’s strictly my opinion, but we’re not people or citizens anymore in the eyes of the LEO’s, we’re all ‘Perps’.. nevermind what you say/witnesses/cameras.. they just don’t care, & they’ll check that stuff when either they put down their doughnuts, or take off their SWAT Gear.. they just don’t care.. so no matter what race/color/creed/religion/income/education/sexual orientation.. they could give a shit.. just fill those jail cells.. even if it’s for a few hours..
          Sh!t Happens.. And it’s been happening for too long.. to all races.. And now people of each & every race are getting pissed off about it..
          Cops investigate Themselves.. rule that it’s all good..
          oh a civil suit?? Just pay them with tax payer money, let the cop go.. everyone’s happy..
          6 months later it happens again.. rinse & repeat..

    1. SHG Post author

      I considered whether to address the issue of Belk’s race, knowing that it happens to people of all color, gender, etc. But it happens a lot more to black guys. Not being capable of seeing into the future or alternative universes, I don’t know what would have happened if the description was “tall, bald head, white male,” and so I won’t argue the point (or allow anyone else to engage in rank speculation), but my unscientific gut says it would not have come down the same way.

      1. Wrongway

        i do wonder if there was a description of clothing, or a car, shoes, anything extra..
        was it a 911 call ??
        that would be interesting to know..

      2. UltravioletAdmin

        Brother in law fits the description of tall, black and bald. He gets stopped all the time. Although it happens less now that he no longer has a fancy car.

        Honestly, despite my bad misgivings, it’s more likely the problem of cross racial IDing. Unless you grew up around people of race, you’re not going to be so awesome as an eyewitness.

        1. SHG Post author

          Cross racial IDs are a huge problem, but inadequately discussed because it’s unseemly to admit we’re just not very good at it. It bears the whiff of racism, which is somehow worse than the whiff of arresting the innocent.

          And you no doubt know the old joke about what you call four black guys in a Mercedes, right?

          1. Frank

            Grand Theft Auto. Should tell the tale some time of a co-worker of color back when I was a federal employee who got arrested for driving a new car with temp plates through Baltimore.

    2. AR Ruiz

      Seriously? Think about what you just said. This well educated man was simply walking and an ambiguous description was enough to get him arrested. It is way less likely that this will happen to a white person, and if it does I’m almost certain police wouldn’t wait 6 hours before checking basic facts. Essentially his word was null and void because he was Black and they couldn’t dignify his claim. I’m not an officer of the law, but I also think that checking video of a bank robbery would be move number one for me.

  2. David Woycechowsky

    First of all, they probably did watch the video and likely did know that Belk wasn’t the bankrobber within 10 minutes of his apprehension.

    As far as why they would arrest him and hold him after they knew it wasn’t him (assuming that is what happened):

    1. Free search. Belk might have had crack.

    2. Possible resisting charge. Belk might have gotten uppity. That is what the tight handcuffs were about.

    3. Free DNA swabbie for the new dBs.

    4. Get to report to press that a suspect is in custody. It seems that Belk was well-connected enough that this turned out to be unhelpful, but in an average case, they can say “suspect in custody” until nobody remembers the bankrobbery anymore. It is a PR thing.

    5. Overtime.

    1. SHG Post author

      This is the sort of comment that makes me furious. No, they probably didn’t. No, you have no fucking clue what you’re talking about. No, you are not allowed to wallow in your self-serving personal speculation as if you “know something” that you absolutely do not. No, you are not allowed to indulge your fantasies here. No, comments like this are dangerously stupid, disgraceful and make me think that you should not be allowed to comment.

      I expected you to avoid the nutjob crap if you commented under your own name, and up to now, you mostly have. This is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated, regardless of what name you use.

      1. David Woycechowsky

        How about this fix:

        Possible reasons that the police seemed to be in no hurry to watch the video:

        1. Free search. Belk might have had crack.

        2. Possible resisting charge. Belk might have gotten uppity. That is what the tight handcuffs were about.

        3. Free DNA swabbie for the new dBs.

        4. Get to report to press that a suspect is in custody. It seems that Belk was well-connected enough that this turned out to be unhelpful, but in an average case, they can say “suspect in custody” until nobody remembers the bankrobbery anymore. It is a PR thing.

        5. Overtime.

        Does that make it all better?

        1. SHG Post author

          Yes. Now it’s just your cynical opinion, which is fine, without creating a fact out of a false assumption.

  3. YourNameHere

    The most shocking thing about this anecdote is that the police don’t seem to care who actually robbed the bank. They just arrested someone in the vicinity who is vaguely similar to the suspect, and called it a day. Did they continue the investigation while the wrong man was in custody, or did they let the real perpetrator get away? Is it so easy to convict any random person for any random crime that it doesn’t actually matter (to the police) who they arrest, because they are going to get a conviction or plea in any case?

    1. SHG Post author

      YourNameHere? Seriously? Are you being hunted by the Mossad that you can’t use your real name on this comment?

      1. YourNameHere

        Huh? You’re saying that I have the Constitutional right to walk down the street without having a police officer with no reasonable suspicion stop me and demand ID, but I can’t ask a few simple questions on your blog (in a designated comments section no less) without being hounded for my real name? I really like your blog and your work, but geez, hypocrite much?

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m not the government. You’re not Publius. I posted your comment, despite your sophomoric pseudonym, but I just don’t get why some people feel this compulsion to be anon over nothing.

          As for the “hypocrite much,” bite me, asshole. That’s not hypocrisy, and if you don’t get why, you’re too stupid to comment here. You’re here on my dime, asshole, and I’m not here for your dumbass convenience or amusement. Go back to reddit.

          1. YourNameHere

            Uh, why create a public blog and then insult and alienate anyone who bothers to read it and comment? It seems self-defeating. But hey, if you want to defeat yourself, like you said, its your dime.

            Maybe if you had asked nicely you’d know why I wanted to post anonymously, I could have explained it. Instead you insisted on “creating a fact out of a false assumption”. Your assumption being, that I somehow have a “compulsion to be anon over nothing”. Hypocritical accusation #2 and counting …

            Anyway, I am a gov contractor who is subject to background checks. In our gov sec training, they teach us that anyone that is critical of gov policy is considered an “insider” security threat. These are the sort of people that would certainly consider your blog to be critical of the gov. Therefore, I don’t want my real name to be publicly associated with your blog, but I still want to participate in the discussion. Is that a lot to ask?

            Thanks for calling me “stupid” and an “asshole” though. Pretty nice and so thoroughly professional. And without any substantive response to anything I’ve said. Are you a person of substance, or just a petulant contrarian?

            1. SHG Post author

              If you had given the reason for your use of that idiotic pseudonym, that would have answered the question. That you defend your being an asshole because you think I should be thrilled about every narcissist who thinks this blog exists for their benefit, is what makes you an asshole.

              Don’t like my being “just a petulant contrarian” and not treating you as the reason for my existence? No problem. You’re banned. Get lost, asshole.

          2. delurking

            I offer my reason for anonymous posting for your consideration: It is important to my livelihood that Google searches for my name result in work-related links. Since blogs have much higher readership than any work-related pages on which my name might appear (I am a physicist), if I used my real name when commenting on blogs the professional results would be multiple pages down.

            I do try always to use the same handle (though some registration-required sites have made that impossible). I realize I have chosen a poor one, but unfortunately I have used it enough that I would guess regular readers of various blogs recognize it.

            Thus, I give anonymous commenters the benefit of the doubt.

            1. SHG Post author

              A couple of my fellow blawgers, Bennett and Hull, for example, decided to reject anon comments. I agreed with their reasoning, but decided that I would still allow them provided they didn’t profess expertise they couldn’t prove, personally attack anyone as if they had personal knowledge, or argue based on their personal preferences.

              I’ve confirmed with certain anon comments, ExCop-LawStudent for example, that he is who he says he is, so that I am confident that he can opine based on his knowledge and experience despite his ‘nym. It’s not a perfect system, but I have enormous concern that people will read this blawg, think the comments are reliable, and act upon them.

              I want to make sure no one is ever hurt by something said here. It’s my responsibility, not the commenters, to try to make sure no one is made stupider for having read SJ.

  4. DHMCarver

    SHG, I think your “unscientific gut” mentioned in your reply to Mr. Dorris above, is probably correct. There is plenty of empirical and anecdotal evidence to back up that gut. Charles Ogletree’s “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America” is a good place to start for folks like Mr. Dorris if they want to get a sense of how race is often a factor.

    On a side note — full marks for your comments about “YourNameHere”. Could he (perhaps a she, but I am guessing not) really be surprised at what you wrote if he really followed this blog? I will be smiling about what you wrote in response to him all day.

    1. SHG Post author

      See what I have to deal with? Ain’t having a blog fabulous? I’m up to my eyeballs in narcissistic fools who want to argue with me about not giving them tummy rubs. I don’t care if they agree with me or not. There are just too many assholes in the world, and they all have keyboards.

      1. Dragoness Eclectic

        I didn’t know you had a policy against nyms. Frankly, in the few topics I comment on (which are when your blog posts touch on fandom), I am far better known on the Internet by my fandom handle than my real name. I prefer to keep my real life and my fandom/internet life separate–some employers get a little weird if they Google you and find out you write stories about cartoon characters or play role-playing games or hang out in goth discussion groups.

        1. SHG Post author

          I don’t have a policy against nyms, so much as some are just stupid rather than yours, which is obviously one that you’ve developed and used over time. At the same time, I’m not thrilled by them, but figure if a commenter is willing to suffer the loss of cred that comes with using a pseudonym, so be it.

          My original question to YourNameHere (which is a truly awful pseudonym, especially for here) was why. What I do have a rule against is people responding like entitled assholes, regardless of whether they use their real name or not.

          1. Dragoness Eclectic

            Fair enough, and thank you for the consideration. As you say, it has developed over some time–I’ve been using it for about twenty years now.

            1. SHG Post author

              Some, like you and my pal Gideon, are more “real” in their ‘nyms than real names. Not everyone can pull that off, or has the patience to establish themselves under their pseudonym before demanding that everyone take them seriously.

          2. ExCop-LawStudent

            What about those of us who actually are entitled assholes? Don’t we get our tummy rubs?

            Or at least half of one, if we’re just the asshole part? See, I know that I’m at least an asshole–too many people in the back of my car have told me that over the years….

        2. Wrongway

          .. I, like you, have used this ‘nym’ for.. well.. ever.. I didn’t even know the term nym existed & was used to describe entitled assholes like ‘excop-lawstudent’.. :P.. (great post by the way..)
          if he (SHG) had had a problem with it, i’m pretty sure he’d have shut me down asap.. And he’s put up with me posting on here for a while now..
          so I’m sure he singled you out due to .. umm.. … ahh.. the weather!!..
          yeah!! that’s it!.. never have a ‘nym’ like that when there’s… umm.. weather.. no, that doesn’t work either.. maybe its just a weird ‘nym’..

          1. SHG Post author

            Hardly “.. umm.. … ahh.. the weather!!” Nor the first time. This isn’t my first rodeo either. Some pseudonyms are just bad, or new covers rather than real pseudonyms. YourNameHere is bad, not a ‘nym that someone has used and developed as an online persona. That’s why.

            Yours, on the other hand, fit so perfectly there was never any doubt.

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