Prince George's County Police Chief John W. Rhoads yesterday fired Officer Peter F. Morgan for using excessive force in the fatal shooting Dec. 24 of an unarmed shoplifting suspect.
Morgan shot William Ray, 32, in the back of the head as Ray, who had been arrested on a charge of shoplifting two hams at a supermarket, attempted to escape from the Seat Pleasant police station. Ray died two days later.
Morgan, 22, was cleared by a county grand jury of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting. But a three-member administrative trial board found him guilty of violating police regulations by using excessive force. On May 31 the board recommended to the chief that Morgan be fired.
Rhoads could have opted for a lesser punishment, but had been expected to go along with the recommendation.
Morgan, who was served dismissal papers at 2:18 p.m. yesterday, said he will appeal the firing to the county Circuit Court.
Morgan said Rhoad's decision was "no suprise to me," adding, "How can you get angry at a man who's never stood up for his troops before and probably never will?
"I knew he would do what he did. I mean, I expected him to stand up for his $45,000-a-year (salary) if nothing else. He wouldn't want to blow that."
Rhoads would not comment yesterday on his reasons for firing Morgan. Three years ago he fired an officer for improper use of deadly force in a fatal shooting, although the police trial board had recommended suspension. In that case, the Circuit Court ordered the officer reinstated.
Morgans shooting of Ray and the fatal shooting Jan. 21 of an unarmed burglarly suspect by Officer Lester J. Bethel renewed racial tensions in the heavily black Seat Pleasant area. Both suspects were black, while the officers are white.
Both shootings were called racially motivated by black community leaders who maintained that the county police force, which is more than 90 percent white, discriminated against blacks.
Morgan said in an interview recently: "This is a political thing. They had to get Lester or me. I was fired the day after it happened as far as they (police officials) were concerned."
Bethel was cleared June 2 of the same violations of police regulations of which Morgan was convicted.
Morgan entered the police academy in 1974, became a full fledged officer in December 1976 and was assigned to Seat Pleasant.
On the day of the shooting he was assinged to the office and was taking Ray to a holding cell when Ray pushed him, ran about 20 feet down the hall and out an unlocked exit door. Ray made his escape moments after Morgan discovered a syringe in one of his pockets.
"When he emptied his pocket and I noticed the syringe he got all nervous," Morgan said recently. "He started yelling, you can't charge me with that," I told him to calm down I wasn't going to charge him.
"I told him to roll up his sleeve. He had a track (needle marks) up and down his arm. Not the longest I'd seen but one of the heaviest."
Members of Ray's family have maintained that Ray was a diabetic rather than a drug addict. An autopsy report said Ray was an addict.
"While I was talking to him," Morgan continued, "I put the syringe down. When we go ready to leave I had him in front of me. When I reached down for the syringe, all of sudden, he tossed me."
Morgan said he chased Ray and called, "halt, police," once and, "stop or I'll shoot," twice as Ray crossed Addison Road and ran into an alley next to a church.
"I was losing him by then," Morgan said. "I figured if he would toss me when I was wearing a gun, he would try anything. I thought he was desperate and dangerous.
"I know this sounds silly but when I raised my gun to shoot, the thought that I might kill the guy never entered my mind. All I was thinking of doing was stopping him so he wouldn't escape in his condition. I never thought he would die. Never.
"I'm not exactly proud of what I did," he said. "I've thought a lot about whether or not I gave him enough of a chance. I honestly thought he was dangerous and he was going to get away.
"I guess it's fair to say that I definitely made one mistake that day. I didn't think, 'boy if you pull the trigger you're up the creek no matter what.' I didn't think about the consequences for myself. All I could picture was him yoking some old lady."
Morgan's lawyer, Samuel L. Serio, maintained at the trial board that Morgan acted within the rules in effect at the time regarding deadly force. The general order at that time stated that an officer could shoot if he thought the person he was chasing "represented a danger to the community." The order was tightened by Rhoads on Feb. 1. Now an officer may fire only if he is in imminent danger.
The department also began renovating the Seat Pleasant prisoner holding area about three weeks ago. There have been more escapes from Seat Pleasant than any other station in the county, including one in 1969 that also resulted in a prisoner being shot fatally.
"They've gone and locked the door after the cows are already gone," said Laney Hester, president of the county branch of the Fraternal Order of Police. "The law on deadly force gave Pete the right to shoot. He thought he was protecting the community.
"The department should share in the blame for this. Conditions at Seat Pleasant have been awful for years and nothing's been done. I'm very disappointed in the department," Hester declared.