Police were looking for a bank robber when they arrested Charles Belk on Friday night. The profile of the suspect was tall, black, and bald. And so is Belk. They were both wearing green shirts. That’s all the information they had. And that’s all the information they deemed necessary to hold Belk for six hours late Friday night, according to the accounts of Belk and his lawyer.
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.”
Belk is a well-connected film and television producer who was en route to an Emmy pre-party later that night. He notes that he “gets” the cops who cuffed him that night didn’t know he was an “award nominated and awarding winning business professional,” that he had been at “one of the finest hotels in their city,” just an hour earlier, and that he was a “well educated American citizen.” “What I don’t get………WHAT I DON”T GET,” he writes. “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.”
Once Belk was eventually permitted to make a phone call, he used his connections to find criminal defense lawyer Jaaye Person-Lynn, who left a wedding to come retrieve him late Friday night. When Person-Lynn got there, Belk was being held on $100,000 bail. Person-Lynn said he was there for an hour before he was able to see Belk. For 40 minutes, officers disputed that Belk had actually requested a lawyer and rejected requests to see him.
Person-Lynn said he had assumed before he arrived that for police to hold Belk that long, they must have had some sort of additional evidence that he committed the crime than his matching description. “I gave the cops the benefit of the doubt at that moment,” he said. “But unfortunately it didn’t end up that way.” It’s common knowledge among law enforcement that all banks have surveillance video cameras. And they never even consulted the recording until after Person-Lynn showed up to represent Belk. Once they watched the tape, it became immediately clear that the actual suspect didn’t look much like Belk and they released him.
It was midnight when Belk was finally released. But Person-Lynn said many other individuals who found themselves in Belk’s situation without his resources would likely have been detained at least until Monday, when a district attorney would have been able to ask him some questions and more defense lawyers were back at work.
Belk also imagined that his arrest could have been worse: he almost ran to his car to check his parking meter, but slowed to a walk when he received a text.
“[I]f it wasn’t for a text message that I was responding to, I would have actually been running up LaCienega Blvd when the first Beverly Hills Police Officer approached me. Running!” he wrote.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, another prominent black man, recounted a story of being stopped by police in another tony neighborhood, Georgetown in Washington, D.C., when he was running to get to a movie in time and police flashed their vehicle lights as they yelled “Where are you going? Hold it!”
“I am the Attorney General of the United States. But I am also a black man,” Holder said last week in a visit to Ferguson, Missouri, where he recalled the stop again. Speaking of several other incidents in which he was pulled over the highway and had his car searched, he said, “I remember how humiliating that was and how angry I was and the impact it had on me.”
In Belk’s case, Person-Lynn didn’t fault the officers for stopping Belk initially, given that he fit the description of what they were looking for. It’s the “overreaction” that followed — and it’s overreaction that he says is epidemic against black men.
“They need to do their due diligence in determining that I either am or am not the person they are looking for,” he said. “It’s worth a few minutes. Stand on the curb while they review the surveillance tape. I don’t think it should have lasted ten minutes. But six hours is ridiculous to take a man’s liberty away when it’s something so clear that he was not involved.” He added, “Whoever really did it got a six-hour lead.”
A representative for the Beverly Hills Police Department did not issue a planned statement before press time.
The police department issued a statement expressing “regret” for inconveniencing Belk but defending the investigation as “absolutely necessary.” “The Beverly Hills Police Department deeply regrets the inconvenience to Mr. Belk and has reached out to him to express those regrets and further explain the circumstances. However, based on witness accounts, and his location close to the bank, officers properly detained and arrested him based on the totality of the circumstances known at the time of the field investigation,” the release states. Police arrested another suspect in the case, a woman thought to be the “Purse Packing Bandit” linked to several bank robberies, but the release said she was “most likely working with a man who was distracting the other bank employees while the robbery was carried out.” Police have not identified another suspect.