By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO, [email protected]
A prominent national Black newspaper columnist was victim of an apparent hoax following a 911 call of a possible murder, which prompted a scene outside his home with law enforcement in Bowie last weekend.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and award-winning author whose columns appear in about 250 newspapers nationwide, was cuffed, questioned and eventually released after police officers figured out it was fake news. Pitts is a featured columnist for the Miami Herald and was reportedly asleep with his family around 5 a.m. when City of Bowie Police were dispatched to the scene.
“It was an interesting way to start the morning,” Pitts told the Herald. “It felt surreal, like I was in a movie.”
While the incident remains under investigation in the Prince George’s County suburb, initial reports say that Pitts was in the home with his wife, adult daughter, and three year old granddaughter when he responded to the second of two calls to his cell phone. Pitts said he the phone answered after the caller ID read “City of Bowie, MD” and was told that police had received a call that someone was killing his wife inside. He was told to stay on the phone and go outside and followed those orders.
Pitts claims that he was told via loudspeaker to put the phone on the ground and to raise his hands up and walk toward a shining spotlight that was pointing at him. He was then told to drop to his knees and put his hands behind his back.
After capitulating to the officers’ orders Pitts was taken behind a police car where he was questioned. His family was ultimately awakened and summoned to go outside though never handcuffed while a group of officers searched the home. The officers set up a perimeter around the house and treated it as a barricaded-suspect situation. Pitts credited remaining calm and following police orders to diffuse what could’ve become a tragedy.
“I knew that if I remained calm, it would be fine because there was nothing to hide,” Pitts said.
Bowie police chief John Nesky was also called to the scene during the incident that unfolded within 30 minutes. He confirmed to the Miami newspaper that an unsolicited call claimed an armed suspect was in the home and officers have to “assume the information is valid until we prove otherwise.”
“We are still investigating what happened, but we do know there was false information given,” Nesky told the Herald.
The incident follows a pattern a growing national trend known as “swatting.” Swatting involves creating similar types of hoaxes created by someone making a false report in order to provoke a SWAT team response from a law enforcement agency. Swatting is often used to target celebrities and other prominent people. Nesky said he couldn’t confirm that theory, but did confirm that a call came in saying someone was armed and in the home.
“We were able to determine pretty quickly that there was nothing going on,” Nesky said. “It’s a waste of resources for the police department. It’s unneeded stress for the family and the officers and there is always the potential for something to go wrong.”
The Herald’s editorial page editor Nancy Ancrum, called the incident “jarring, disturbing and alarming.”
“As always I and the Herald are concerned about Leonard’s safety and the safety of all of our writers,” Ancrum said. “I am glad the Bowie police department is continuing to investigate this event.”