The question was comparatively simple. Multiple choice.Answer A, B, C, or D. But no one in the Prince George's County Police Department seems to know whether C or D is the correct answer.

As a result, the future of three police lieutenants is up in the air, charges of favoritism and sour grapes are being circulated. In the end, Chief John W. Rhoads will probably have to decide which answer is correct.

That ruling may determine which of three lieutenants gets promoted to captain next year, gaining seniority, authority and a raise of between $2,000 and $3,000 a year.

"I haven't the slightest idea what the answer to the question is," Rhoads said yesterday. "And I'm not going to try and guess because with my luck I won't pick either answer which has been judged correct."

The question comes from the test taken in October by 26 lieutenants vying for promotion to captain. It asked: "What is the deficiency to be found in routine command systems during emergency conditions?"

Lieutenants Milton Krump and Richard Beavers chose answer (C). "The routine command system has too long a chain of command for emergency situations."

That is the correct answer given in "Police Administration," by O.W. Wilson, a police textbook. Lt. William Roberts answered (D), "All of the above." Besides answer (C), the others were (A), "There is no emergency-oriented command in hierarchy," and (B), "There is no practice for training in command under emergency situations."

Initially, Roberts' answer was ruled incorrect. That wrong answer left him with the fourth-highest score on the test, while Krump and Beavers respectively had the two highest scores.

But Roberts appealed the answer -- a common occurrence, since different police manuals often give different answers to questions. A four-man board headed by Col. Vincent du Cellier, who is in charge of administrative services and is Roberts' supervisor in the training division, ruled in Roberts' favor.

The changing of the one answer moved Roberts to the head of the list and dropped Krump and Beavers several ranks. The two lieutenants then appealed to Rhoads.

"This is the first time that I can remember where there has been an appeal filed on an appeal," Rhoads said. "Because of that we're just not sure what our next move is.

"It may be that the whole question will be thrown out completely if both answers are right, which is possible."

In the meantime, friends of Krump and Beavers -- both of whom refused comment beyond confirming the appeal -- are saying that the appeals decision was based on favoritism, that duCellier upheld the appeal because Roberts works for him.

Roberts angrily denied the charge yesterday. "Until this thing is resolved I don't see how anyone can say things like that," he said. "I think there are people who are just out to make personal attacks on me. Somewhere along the line there's an awful lot of sour grapes."

"No, we don't have a morale problem because of this right now," Rhoads said. "But when I make my final decision, we could have one."

The bickering among his lieutenants seemed to upset Rhoads more than the battle of the books. "If my officers are calling each other names then I'm very disappointed in them," Rhoads said. "This really shouldn't be that big a deal."

"Anyway." Rhoads said, "it's possible that no one will get promoted to captain off the list. A lot depends upon retirements."

The base salary for the department's 44 lieutenants is about $15,500 per year, although most earn between $17,500 and $20,000. The department's 20 captains make a base salary of $17,500 but most earn more than $20,000.