More than half a dozen police officers showed up at the home of Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. in Maryland early Sunday after a hoax call to 911 reporting that someone had been murdered inside the home.
Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and award-winning author whose columns appear in about 250 newspapers nationwide, said he was cuffed, questioned and eventually released after officers realized it was a hoax.
“It was an interesting way to start the morning,” Pitts said Sunday afternoon. “It felt surreal, like I was in a movie.”
Pitts was fast asleep in bed with his wife when his cell phone rang just before 5 a.m. He said the phone is on “do not disturb,” but if someone calls twice in a row it will ring. The caller ID said City of Bowie, Maryland.
He answered 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. He complied.
“I knew that if I remained calm, it would be fine because there was nothing to hide,” Pitts said.
Someone on a loudspeaker told him to put the phone on the ground, put his hands up and walk toward a spotlight shining at him. He was then told to drop to his knees and put his hands behind his back.
He was taken behind a police car where he was questioned. His wife, adult daughter, her wife and his 3-year-old granddaughter were all inside at the time. They were told to go outside, but were not cuffed, Pitts said. Meanwhile other officers searched his home.
These types of hoaxes are usually considered “swatting” incidents — someone makes a false report in order to provoke a SWAT team response. Swatting, which has become all-to-familiar nationwide, is often used to target celebrities and other prominent people.
Bowie police chief John Nesky told the Herald on Sunday that he wasn’t ready to give it that label just yet. He did confirm that a call came in saying someone was armed in the home.
“We are still investigating what happened, but we do know there was false information given,” he said.
Nesky, who showed up at the scene, said officers have to “assume the information is valid until we prove otherwise.”
The officers, who were not members of a SWAT team, set up a perimeter and treated it as a barricaded-suspect situation.
“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.”
Nesky apologized to Pitts and said the department is looking into the call to try to determine who was behind it.
“This kind of stuff doesn’t happen a lot in Bowie,” he said of the city outside Washington, D.C. Pitts “didn’t do anything wrong. Of course we are going to apologize.”
Pitts, who said the police department was professional and “‘did what they had to do,” said this kind of incident is a new one for him.
“I think anybody who does what I do for a living has experience with some version of this,” he said. “Technology is cheap terrorism.”
Pitts’ editor, Herald Editorial Board 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. I am glad the Bowie police department is continuing to investigate this event.”