When 1985 USC Viterbi graduate and Hollywood film producer Charles Belk took the stage at the National Society of Black Engineers’ annual convention in March, he scrapped his keynote speech and instead participated in a discussion about policing around the United States.
The topic has alternatively followed and led Belk. In August 2014, Belk, 52, who also has a master’s degree in business administration from Indiana University and an executive management certificate from Harvard Business School, was handcuffed and detained by Beverly Hills police, mistaken for a suspected bank robber. He was released without being charged, but an arrest record appeared on the Los Angeles County sheriff’s website.
Even when police make a mistake, as they had with him, “You leave [custody] with that arrest record and it will follow you,” Belk said. Erasing the record costs more than $5,000 and takes months of work, he said.
A longtime Trojan alumni supporter, Belk thought about the case of mistaken identity like an engineer. His USC engineering degree “helped me look at things logically,” he said. “This was about re-engineering a process.”
Belk was a natural to speak out about wrongful arrests. He’s led workshops on African-American male mentoring, resume writing, job interviews and more. He’s often the host for events including movie and television preview screenings. At the San Diego Film Festival, for instance, he talked about branding, and spoke about low-cost ways to produce indie films at the Downtown Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Seeing a chance to help others by using his oratory and engineering skills, Belk launched a petition for what he calls “auto erasing” records of those wrongfully arrested. The online petition can be found at http://www.fittingthedescription.org.
Several states’ legislators took note of Belk’s efforts to re-engineer the law to require the sealing and destruction of records of those wrongfully arrested.
Six states — Illinois, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, North Carolina and South Carolina — have introduced legislation. The Illinois General Assembly has approved an auto erase law that is being sent to be the governor.
“We had a process here that went wrong, and it is truly amazing that in this country an individual who is not an elected official nor an attorney can work to get legislation passed,” said Belk, who lives in Hollywood and is a native of Durham, N.C.
Belk was an IBM product development manager and later worked in public affairs and marketing before turning to independently producing films, including The Greatest Song and Douglass U, and creating promotional material for the NAACP and others. He always knew that engineering would not be his last career stop.
Belk has remained active in the National Society of Black Engineers because “once an engineer, always an engineer,” he said. “Logical thinking and problem solving are skills an engineer can apply to any line of business they go into.”
NSBE Executive Director Karl Reid said, “Charles is demonstrating the power of our organization to make a positive impact on the community. He’s made the most of the leadership training and leadership experience we provide and is using what he’s learned to benefit others.”
Even though he folded up his recent keynote address, Belk saved one line for other speaking engagements and a book he is writing about his arrest: “When life throws you a lemon, at least you still have your life!”