Prince George's County police chief John W. Rhoads last week sharply criticized many supporters of Terrence G. Johnson, the 15-year-old Bladensburg youth accused of murdering two county police officers, saying they are "turning [the Johnson case] into a circus."

In an interview Thursday, Rhoads said he was worried that statements being made by Johnson supporters -- statements implying that Johnson was a victim of police brutality -- could inflame the already tense racial situation in Prince George's.

Johnson was arrested on the morning of June 26 and charged with two counts of homicide after officers Albert M. (Rusty) Claggett IV and James Brian Swart were shot to death in the Hyattsville police station. Johnson had been arrested on suspicion of larceny about an hour before the shootings.

Since the shootings, a number of groups have formed in support of Johnson, helping raise money for his defense.

Many members of these groups have pointed out that Claggett -- from whom Johnson allegedly grabbed the murder weapon while the two were in a small finerprinting room -- was brought before a police trial board on brutality charges several years ago.

Claggett was cleared of those charges. Testimony before a police trial board showed that he was not directly involved in the arrest.

Rhoads, speaking emotionally, often angrily, said last week that he was particularly distressed that the four-year old brutality incident has been mentioned repeatedly in recent weeks.

"I don't want to see these young men [Claggett and Swart] used to inflame the racial situation in this county," he said. "What's being said now could easily set us back again. It's wrong all the way around, simply wrong.

"I know I'm emotional about this," he said. "But for Rusty's character to be maligned the way it has been is atrocious. It makes me angry.

"The thing they don't point out is that he [Claggett] was cleared of those charges," Rhoad said. "He was one of several officers who were on the scene but had no part in the arrest. He was charged just because he was there.I put him through it. He's never been anything but a devoted public servant."

Rhoads has been criticized often by rank-and-file police officers since the shootings because of his silence on the subject.

He said Thursday that he had made a mistake by saying nothing in the aftermath of the shootings.

"It was an extremely tough time for me emotionally," Rhoads said. "This department is very much like family to me, disputes or no disputes, and I felt that I had lost two members of that family.

"I didn't handle the situation right. I think I probably acted unprofessionally. I didn't let my men know I was behind them.

"I was absolutely determined to see to it that I didn't say anything that would make it difficult for Terrence Johnson to get a fair trial. But I forgot to let my men know I shared their grief and felt it right along with them."