Two policemen were standing outside a county police station one recent afternoon discussing a problem. "Watch who you talk to about that," one cautioned.
The second officer laughed. "What are they goint to do to me if I talk?" he said. "Bust me to private and send me to Seat Pleasant?"
The laugh was a bitter one: most Prince George's County policemen feel that there are few things worse than being sent to Seat Pleasant.
Even the Seat Pleasant station house seems to reflect the low repute in which Seat Pleasant jobs are held.The two-story brick building is 25 years old and has undergone constant renovation in recent years. Detectives sit elbow to elbow in their offices and patrolmen try not to trip over the equipment being used to renovate the basement.
Things are no easier for the men when they go out on patrol: the area they must cope with is crowded and crime-ridden. The population of the Seat Pleasant area has increased by about 50 percent in the last 10 years, most of the newcomers being lower-income families, some seeking escape from the inner city. Much of the area is overcrowded, rundown and - it seems - in almost constant turmoil.
Like the station the area is in need of renovation. The crime rate is easily the highest in the county. In 1977, 1,400 violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, assault) were reported in the Seat Pleasant district, and these represented almost 40 percent of the violent crime county wide.
Clinton, in southern Prince George's, has the lowest crime rate of the five county districts - in 1977 it reported 154 violent crimes, little more than a 1/10th as much as Seat Pleasant.
There are 102 patrolmen working out of the Seat Pleasant Station - about the same number as are assigned to the four other, calmer districts. In addition, 29 of the Seat Pleasant officers are black, making it easily the most racially balanced district station in the county, where the police force overall is 91 per cent white.
Still, many of the black officers say life in Seat Pleasant is no easier for them than it is for their white counterparts. "Listen, you could be a green cop and still have trouble working Seat Pleasant," Officer K. C. Brown said. "Color doesn't really matter."
Indeed, the problems of the area, where over 80 percent of those arrested are black, appear to go beyond race. Many people in the district are poor and jobless and resent policemen, who are neither. The police, in turn, feel this resentment and it angers them.
Then come the "incidents," little bursts of hostility between the police and the policed. With each incident, tension grows. Right now, throughout the Seat Pleasant District, which runs inside the Beltway from the northeast boundary of Washington out through the communities of Palmer Park, Fairmount Heights and Seat Pleasant, there are deep feelings of mistrust on both sides.
One recent late-night incident perhaps capsulized the area's tensions. Cruising down Central Avenue, an officer spotted a car coming directly at him on the wrong side of the road. He swerved to avoid it, then made a U-turn to follow the car, which was going 55 miles an hour in a 35 mph zone.
Turning his flashing lights on, the officer got the man to pull over. The conversation between the men started out quietly; the driver was apologetic, admitting that he had had a drink after work. He said he lived nearby.
The officer decided not to charge the man with drunk driving, figuring he would give the driver only a speeding ticket - for going 45 mph in a 35 mph zone - to encourage him to be more careful in the future. But with this, the driver, a black man , exploded.
"Don't you white cops have anything better to do than harass black folks?" he screamed. "I'm sick and tired of you guys. Damn bunch of murders."
"You get used to it," the officer said later. "But it's hard. And if I say anything I'll probably get slapped with a complaint and then there's more trouble. It's a never-ending circle."
The black policemen, however, say they find their job no easier than their white counterparts. Some say that being a black policeman in a heavily black area is a nightmare.
"The worst thing you can do is send a black policement to Seat Pleasant," said officer Douglas R. Murray, who has been there for two and a half years. "No one in this county suffers more than a black cop on the street in Seat Pleasant."
A large part of this area is ghetto," he continued. "These people feel they have no hope, no chance to get out. They see a black cop and they know he's gotten out. They're jealous and envious. We've taken a step they haven't. They resent you for being the police.
"You work in Seat Pleasant, you're just as afraid as any white officer."
Low as morale has been for the past couple of years, however, things got worse when, within a four-week period last winter, two white Seat Pleasant officers shot and killed two unarmed black suspects.
"The shootings," are discussed around the station the same way Watergate is discussed at Republic Party reunions. The first happened on Dec. 24 officer Peter Morgan, one of the most popular men in the station, shot and killed William Ray, a shoplifting suspect who fled from the station-house after Morgan had discovered a syringe on him.
Morgan pursued him and as Ray pulled away from him Morgan fired once, striking Ray in the back of the head. He died two days later, and charges of racism against Morgan and the department multiplied.
Four weeks later Lester J. Bethel confronted a burglary suspect as he climbed out the window of a restaurant. When the suspect, Abraham Dickens IV made a sudden move as if reaching into his pocket, Bethel fired his shotgun twice. Dickens died immediately and the racism charges grew louder.
Both Morgan and Bethel were cleared of criminal wrongdoing but were brought to trial board on administrative charges brought by the police.
Bethel was eventually cleared but Morgan was found guilty of unsatisfactory performance and on June 21, Chief John W. Rhoads fired him. As the months passed, Morgan's friends at Seat Pleasant have grown angry.
"The way it was then and even the way it is now you can't tell under the general orders when you can shoot and when you can't," said officer Bill Richards. "The fact that they changed the general order shows it wasn't clear. How can they fire Pete when they aren't even sure whether he was right or wrong?"
Many of the men will concede privately that they would not have fired. But all say that the punishment did not fit the crime. Morgan has become a symbol of their feeling that they are surrounded: the community on one side, the administration on the other.
"Morale is so low at Seat Pleasant right now you'd have to climb up a ladder to get into the pits." Murray said.
Even without the shootings - which have kept morale at a low ebb for months - the men of Seat Pleasant feel up against it most of the time.
"Look, the days when people had respect for a police uniform are gone," Detective Nick Valltos said. "And in this area it's even worse. I'm no racist, really I'm not. But it's a fact that whenever you go into a black area and you want to arrest a black the first thing they do is throw race up in your face. You're dealing with that sort of thing night after night. Down in some parts of Clinton or in Bowie there's nothing to police but deer and fish. Not here."
Capt. Michael J. Flaherty has been district commander in Seat Pleasant since February. He was given the assignment because, at age 37, he is considered by the administration to be a bright, rising officer. Someone very good was needed at Seat Pleasant as the shootings furor built, the administration felt.
Flaherty concedes that morale has been a problem in Seat Pleasent but insists that the worst is over. He talks optimistically of the future, of new understanding between the Community and the police force. He sounds very much like Police Chief Rhoads.
"Anytime a policeman is dismissed it's going to have a definite effect on morale," he said of the Morgan firing. "In fact, anytime two officers are brought up on administrative charges, the men who work with them are going to be affected.
"But I don't think that's a major problem right now. I think most of the men have put the incidents behind them. They're upset for Morgan but there isn't much more they can do.
"I think that being over and the contract - between the county and the police union - being signed there will be a definite improvement in morale around here."
Flaherty has made efforts to bridge the gap between the police and the community with town meetings - a smaller version of County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.'s town meetings. He says participation has improved, that it is helping.
"I think a lot of the problems we have are caused by misunderstandings by citizens of a policeman's role . . .
"Also, there's the natural mistrust for policemen that many low income people have. They're brought up not to trust policeman. We're trying to change that."
But trust - "unity with the community," - as Rhoads call it, appears to be a long way off."
"The only thing united in this community are the cops on the street with each other," said K.C. Brown, who like Murray is black and has been in Seat Pleasant for 2 1/2 years.
"I know the men have a difficult job," Flaherty conceded, "but that's simple because there's more crime to deal with here than in other areas. That's more work."
"That's the only thing we got going right now, each other," Brown said. "A lot of guys have been going around pretty half hearted. They don't go looking for anything. We're not as aggressive as we should be. Why should we be? All we do by getting involved is cause trouble for ourselves, if not right then, later."
But the men insist that it isn't just the work that is causing the problems.
"Look," Valltos said. "They've given me the right to violate a man's civil rights by depriving him of his freedom. They've given me a gun. They've given me the power to take life.
"That's not just power, that's responsibility. To deal with that responsibility right you need cooperation so you can handle it. We need more than we're getting from inside. We need support. We can't fight everyone alone."