Beverly Hills police and city officials predictably circled the wagon after news broke of the humiliating, embarrassing and potentially dangerous wrongful arrest of noted African-American filmmaker and producer Charles Belk. Though they later back pedaled and expressed regret about the arrest, they still contended that Belk was detained not because he was black, but because there was probable cause following the report of a bank robbery in the vicinity of the stop. He supposedly fit the initial description of the suspect, "tall, bald, black, male and black." Belk fit that description, but so did thousands of other black men. Like them, Belk did everything by the book when stopped. He identified himself, told why he was in the city and related his immaculate academic, business and artistic credentials, that could easily and quickly been checked. This meant nothing. He was not just a suspect, but in that moment, he was another black potential criminal in the eyes of Beverly Hills police. The indignity of his curbside, handcuffed sit down, exorbitant bail and according to Belk the passage of hours before he was allowed to consult with an attorney rammed that terrifying point home.
But Belk is hardly alone in his rough and summary treatment by Beverly Hills police. Blacks have long complained that they are stopped, searched, followed and harassed by Beverly Hills police, eyeballed suspiciously by clerks in stores and have been ignored in restaurants. Though a major lawsuit for racial profiling that was brought by seven blacks a decade ago was tossed, Beverly Hills agreed to set up a Human Relations Commission to deal with issues of racial disconnect in Beverly Hills. But now there's the Belk stop.
This stop fit the all-too-familiar pattern of many unwarranted stops of black and Latino motorists and pedestrians in far too many cities. Predictably, as in most racial profiling allegations, Beverly Hills police and city officials hotly denied the profiling charge against Belk. Belk's stop likely would have ignited the usual finger pointing, charge swapping and then faded fast -- except for one thing.
In the past decade, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami and other big and small cities have repeatedly been called on the carpet for alleged racial profiling. The stakes in the profiling battle have been dramatically upped with the recent frank admission by Attorney General Eric Holder that he as a college student and even as a federal prosecutor was the target of racial profiling. The point that Holder made and the humiliation of Belk by Beverly Hills police has drove home once more that wealth, status, education and academic and business or artistic credentials can mean absolutely nothing in the eyes of some police whose reflexive equation is black equals crime.
The refusal by many public officials to admit that racial profiling exists has helped torpedo efforts by local and national civil rights groups to get law enforcement to do something about it.
A racial profiling bill was passed by the California state legislature in 1999 that mandated that law enforcement agencies compile racial stats on traffic stops. It was promptly vetoed by then-Governor Gray Davis.
Since then many California cities and county police departments, the California Highway Patrol and University of California police agencies -- either voluntarily or through mandatory federal consent decrees -- collect date on unwarranted traffic stops of motorist and civilian contacts to determine if there is a racial bent to the stops. Torrance is not one of those cities.
Nationally, dozens of states do collect data either voluntarily or compelled by state law on unwarranted pedestrian contacts and traffic stops. Still, most police officials, as in Beverly Hills, loudly contend that good police work is about the business of catching criminals and reducing crime, not about profiling blacks and Latinos. If more black and Latino men are stopped, it's not because they're black or Latino but because they commit more crimes.
The other even more problematic tact used to debunk racial profiling is that there have been few statistics that have been compiled on unwarranted stops. In two surveys, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics took a hard, long look at racial profiling using information that it got from citizens. Both times, the agency found that while whites are stopped, searched and arrested less frequently than blacks or Latinos, there was no hard proof that the stops had anything to do with race.
This has done even more to damp down a public outcry to get police agencies and legislators to admit that racial profiling is a fact, and to take firm action to eliminate it.
Belk's shameful wrongful arrest and the even more shameful attempt by Beverly Hills officials to duck, dodge and deny any wrongdoing has deservedly put Beverly Hills back on the racial profiling hot seat.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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