Wrongful arrest leads TV producer to become law enforcement reform advocate

Image credit: Charles Belk via Facebook

The detention of black TV and film producer Charles Belk in Beverly Hills last summer led him to a second career: advocacy for law enforcement reform. Now Belk is educating police on how to avoid profiling mistakes and urging lawmakers to make it easier to erase arrest records when mistakes happen. He says he wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn’t happen to others. FSRN’s Larry Buhl has more from Los Angeles.

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Charles Belk’s arrest in the summer of 2014 made news internationally. It happened just days after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen in Ferguson Missouri – which put allegations of racially-biased police actions in the focus of the media’s lens.

Police accused Belk of armed robbery of a nearby Citibank branch. When police finally reviewed the bank’s surveillance video, they saw that the “tall, bald-headed black male” they were looking for was a different guy.

Beverly Hills police released Belk and apologized for the mistake.

But Belk later learned he had another problem. Even after police gave him a certificate saying he was merely detained but not arrested or charged, he still had a police record stemming from the incident. And the burden was on him to clear it.

“They never tell you that it’s going to be a problem,” says Belk. “I don’t think they send you away saying, ‘Hey, you have an arrest record and you might need to clear it. I know it was our mistake.'”

Belk learned that many face the same problem in the U.S. In most states, just being detained by authorities, even if you’re not booked, can result in a record that stays in the state database.

Once someone is in the system, it’s difficult to get out. It can take months, sometimes years, of petitioning and filing paperwork and pleading with judges to wipe the slate clean. And the process can cost thousands of dollars in court filing and lawyer fees.

Many people don’t learn they’re in the system until they go for a digital fingerprint to apply for a job an apartment, child custody, school admission or even a hunting license. They can spend the rest of their lives getting turned down, and having to prove and re-prove their innocence.

Bruce Margolin is an attorney in West Hollywood, California, and founding member of NORML, a group that advocates for the legalization of marijuana. He says erasing an arrest record is a Kafkaesque process because the system gives the arresting officer the benefit of the doubt.

“The officer’s first contact with someone in trouble is a very important part of the mechanism of prosecution and it’s considered that his opinion is strongly believed and acted on. So if an officer makes a decision to arrest someone, it can be a problem for someone the rest of their days,” Margolin explains.

Exactly how many people are affected by wrongful arrests is hard to say as local law enforcement agencies aren’t required to keep those statistics.

When Belk took to social media about his experience, he received thousands of responses, many from people who had also been detained or arrested due to mistaken identity. That’s when he decided to put his entertainment career on hold to be a full time activist and advocate.

He started the nonprofit group, Fitting the Description to provide sensitivity training for law enforcement to minimize profiling practice that can lead to wrongful arrests, and to educate the public on how to interact with police.

And he started #autoerase, to put the burden on law enforcement, not individuals, to erase records of arrests based on mistaken identity or even stolen identity.

“Clear cut no brainers where law enforcement readily admits that, ‘Hey we have the wrong person. We didn’t charge you but you have this record. It is in the system and it will come up in future searches…’ those are the type of cases we at the grassroots level are trying to deal with,” Belk says.

For the past six months Belk has been flying around the country, mostly on his own dime, to encourage state lawmakers to draft legislation that would automatically erase arrest records based on errors. Legislators in six states have introduced bills, and more than a dozen more are considering similar measures.

Rhode Island state representative Carlos Tobon wrote a bill that would make the arresting agency automatically erase photographs, fingerprints, and DNA of anyone wrongfully arrested after a period of 60 days.

“Let’s say you’re doing an application and it asks have you ever been arrested. Right now you have to say yes. And then you can explain. The idea of this bill is you can say absolutely, unequivocally no, even if you were because all the documents were destroyed once it was determined you were innocent. You walk in innocent without a record and walk out innocent without a record,” explains Tobon.

State Representative Ken Dunkin of Illinois introduced similar legislation, HB 169, that he says will facilitate the ability of police to erase the record of an erroneous arrest.

“All police districts are not the same. This creates a process for that department to be proactive immediately after they acknowledge they made a simple mistake. What we wanted to do is make the process as clear as possible and yet not handicap individuals who were simply wrongly arrested,” says Dunkin.

Charles Belk says he isn’t sure when he’ll go back to film and television production because he still has a lot of work to do reforming the system state by state. He believes his wrongful detention last summer, while maddening at first, was his chance to make positive change in the more byzantine and confounding policies of law enforcement.

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