The question of whether to offer public support for Terrence Johnson has during the past two weeks, provoked bitter disagreements among the members of the all-back D.C. Afro-American Police Officers Association.
Johnson, the 15-year-old black youth accused of killing two Prince George's County police officers last summer, has already won the backing of Ronald E. Hampton, president of the 150-member group, who spoke on behalf of the youth at a rally two weeks ago.
Hampton's remarks, however, upset many association members, some of whom have since said that Hampton speaks for himself, not for the group as a whole, and that no formal vote has ever been taken on the issue.
Johnson is scheduled to be tried on two counts of first-degree murder in Prince George's County Circuit Court beginning Jan. 29. He is charged with fatally shooting officers Albert M. Claggett IV and James Brian Swart, who were both killed in the Hyattsville police station on June 26 about an hour after Johnson and his older brother were arrested on suspicion of breaking into a laundromat coin box.
Hampton has said publicly that he believes Johnson may have been provoked into the alleged shootings. "Some whites say he shot them for nothing," Hampton said. "I don't believe that."
Sgt. Earl K. Bell said yesterday that he does not dispute Hampton's right to his opinion but says he and many other men are upset that Hampton has connected the entire organization to the Johnson support movement The group has now decided to meet tomorrow night to discuss the situation and take a formal vote.
"I don't know what happened out there but there's two men dead, two policemen dead and I don't want my name connected with any kind of support for the guy accused of doing it," Bell said angrily. "A lot of people are trying to make this into a racial issue and it's not.The issue is murder. There's no excuse for that, black, white or green."
Hampton said that an informal poll he has taken of the membership showed that taking a stand in favor of Johnson was favored by about 20 of the 30 members of the group that, according to both side, actively participate in day-to-day activities of the organization.
"I want a vote, out in the open, so we know who stands where," Bell said. "If they vote to support the kid, fine, they can do it. But if I go to the trial I'm going to sit with the P.G. police no matter what the group decides."
Another member of the group, who asked not to be identified because "the whole thing has become so emotional," said he wasn't sure which way he would vote but felt a vote was essential and would be very close.
"It's split down the middle," he said. "Everyone agrees the man deserves a fair trial but a lot of us just think we don't know enough to condemn him or condemn the police. But we'll see what happened Tuesday. I imagaine there will be some voices raised at the meeting."
Laney Hester, president of the Prince George's branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, yesterday expressed distress over the group's involvement in the issue.
"We haven't been running around asking anyone for help or support," he said. "We just want a fair and orderly trial. It would be nice if D.C. cops would just worry about D.C. and not bother us. Frankly, it's none of their damn business."