It is after 11 p.m. when a stocky police officer approaches the just-burglarized office of a Lanham computer firm and draws his gun before peering inside. Then, satisfied that whoever committed the burglary is already gone, he puts the gun away.
Patrolman Peter F. Morgan, more than most policemen, knows firsthand the potential consequences of firing a gun. Nearly four years ago, in a highly publicized case, he was dismissed from his job on the Prince George's police force after fatally shooting an unarmed shoplifter. To blacks in the county, the shooting in a churchyard on Christmas Eve 1977 was a classic case of overreaction by a white policeman to a black suspect.
Now, reinstated and assigned to the Bowie station, Morgan, 26, says he would not be hesitant to use "deadly force" in the future and has no regrets about firing the shot that killed 32-year-old William (Sonny) Ray. And yet, he says, if he were in the same situation again, he wouldn't shoot.
"As you can see the gun's out," he said while out on patrol one night this week. "I haven't changed one bit from the way I was before. My safety comes first. Because there's nobody out there looking out for my well-being, I have to look out for myself. It's not a reluctance to use force but I do try to avoid situations where I have to use force." He chuckles and adds, "I don't need the publicity."
Morgan rejoined the Prince George's police force on April 4, 1979, because, he said, "I wanted to prove myself right."
Since then, he has lived quietly, the main difference in his life being two small children. He stares down at his burgeoning paunch and says he'd like to lose nine pounds from his 5-foot-9 1/2-inch frame, but says he's about the same weight (169 pounds) he was eight years ago, when, at the age of 18, he joined the police force as a cadet. But outside of his personal life, he says he remains basically the same.
He did not undergo psychological counseling after he was fired from the police force for using "excessive force." People no longer recognize him as they once did. And he has been accepted by his fellow police officers.
Sgt. Harvey Looney, his immediate supervisor, says Morgan has performed adequately since returning to the department. "He's not my best officer," he said. "He's not my worst. He's doing an average job."
But there are others in Prince George's County who openly question why Morgan was rehired.
"If he was tried by a jury of his peers, administratively, who felt it was an error of judgment in shooting the gentleman fleeing from the police precinct and was terminated from the force," said Jody Bass, president of the Prince George's County chapter of the NAACP, "how does the police department justify his rehiring when a jury of his own peers felt he was unworthy of wearing the badge of a police officer?"
The events that led to the shooting incident began when Ray was being booked at the Seat Pleasant station after his arrest for shoplifting two hams worth $18.58. Ray broke free, and Morgan, who was booking him, gave chase. At a nearby churchyard, Morgan ordered Ray to halt and when he refused, Morgan fired a single, deadly shot.
Morgan was immediately put on administrative leave -- with pay. Although a Prince George's County grand jury voted not to indict him for the shooting death of Ray, he was found guilty by an internal police trial board of violating departmental rules on the used of deadly force. He was fired from the county police force in June 1978.
Nine months later, after a Circuit Court judge told the board to review the case, he was reinstated.
Morgan, who had been married two months when the shooting occurred, said that during the police trial board inquiry into Ray's death, "I knew in the back of my mind that I was going to be fired, but I didn't know how they were going to do it. Nothing bothered me about what I had done. I thought I was right. I have no bad feelings."
His wife, Debbied, however, was "rather upset" that he was fired, he said, "because she didn't understand the politics. Basically they [the news media and the NAACP] were making an issue at that time about the county police being brutal and racist. We'd had two shootings within a month. . . . They put a lot of heat on the police department.
"I believe that people have a right to scrutinize police actions, but there's no reason you should be persecuted for it. . . . I got my picture smeared all over the papaers. If that situation comes up again, I'll chase you for a while," he said, waving his right hand past his face. "If I can't catch up, you're gone. That's what the department wants. They don't want any waves."
"If the same thing was to happen again and I was in the same situation, I wouldn't shoot again. Not that I'm saying I was wrong, but the department's feeling is that if a person was to get away and he did something two blocks away, I don't get in trouble for that. The only person who gets in trouble is the citizen. But if I take action, then I get in trouble. From now on if it comes between me and the citizen who gets in trouble, it's going to be the citizen. It's not that I don't care but I'm not going to get myself into another jam.
"If I hadn't shot him there, he'd have got away. We'd have lost him. Say, two blocks away he whips up on some old lady. I'm not going to get into trouble. . . . I'm not going to lose my job again."
The Bowie station is smaller than Seat Pleasant and answers 58 percent fewer calls each year than the one in Seat Pleasant. The difference between the two stations is like "night and day," Morgan said.
"When you work a line station [a police station located along the District line], all you can do is get the basic information and 10-A [leave and take the next call], because the calls get so backed up," he said. Out here, you may get one call an hour, which is slow, and then you have another 10 minutes before you get a call."
Despite the change from a busy station, Morgan says he is happy. "You're talking 15 months that I've been cheated out of," he said. "You know, you can't make up time. [But] I like it out here because you don't have to hustle as much as you do at a line station."
Reflecting on his experience, Morgan suggested one lesson he has learned in the last four years. "Basically, it was bad timing," he said. "It's all that means. You don't shoot people in churchyards on Christmas Eve."