The Prince George's County police force at the Seat Pleasant station is three-fourths white, while the neighborhood around it is 95 percent black. That hasn't changed much since 1977 when tension between residents and police was high, especially after police shot on Christmas eve a black burglary suspect who later died.
The tension, however, has eased. Even the shooting of two white officers in the police station parking lot this week does not seem to have increased it. Police say the incidents, in which one officer was wounded seriously and another superficially, were isolated, not symbols of resentment toward them.
They say they have tried hard to improve community relations in the last few years, and that it has worked. But something else has changed, too.
"This was a bedroom community once," says Ted Peters, assistant district police commander. "Now you have dogs, squealing tires and shots in the night."
Crime in Seat Pleasant is way up, with 360 murders, rapes and robberies reported in the neighborhood between January and April. That is more reported violent crime than in any other Prince George's district. And more residents today see police, black or white, as allies rather than enemies.
"I used to be one of those people who was really down on the police force," says Seat Pleasant resident Joan Perry after two policemen were hit with gunfire, one Tuesday night and another Wednesday morning. "Two or three years ago people were being mistreated by the police. I think service has improved in the last couple of years."
But Perry also has been touched by crime. Last month, her daughter was almost raped: The police, she says, "seemed more concerned and more polite, and they gave me the information and things I needed."
Seat Pleasant is enclosed by Rte. 50, the Suitland Parkway, the Beltway and the District line. In the 1960s, it seemed to offer city conveniences and suburban amenities at once. Between 1970 and 1980, the percentage of blacks in the electoral district in the heart of this area rose from 67 percent to 90 percent, as city residents migrated to it. The change in racial makeup brought tension with the police.
Four weeks after the Christmas Eve 1977 shooting, a white policeman shot another black burglary suspect and cries of racism grew louder. "Right at this moment," said Sylvester Vaughns, then the county's NAACP president, "if you asked 100 black people what they thought of the Prince Goerge's police department, all 100 of them would tell you how bad and racist it is."
Today, Vaughns says, the situation is much improved, because better human relations training has changed the attitudes of police. "There's no question about it; things have changed for the better," he says.
Only 27 of 106 patrol officers are black. But district commander Capt. William Sahaydak says his officers are better educated, better trained and have a greater sympathy for the community today. In February, the Seat Pleasant district opened a storefront crime prevention office in the Palmer Park Shopping Center.
"Times have changed," Sahaydak says. "We have a different concept of the community. And the community has changed. It is less suspicious of phe community. And the community has changed. It is less suspicious of police."
Individual officers feel the difference on the streets, he says. "More people are talking with them and meeting them." He says he sees the change in the increased number of invitations he receives to speak at community meetings and the number of times he is consulted by civic leaders.
"I don't see any resentment towards police," says Officer John Riley, who was desk officer on Thursday."I grew up here. People know me. The white officers on my squad are from around here." A man walked into the station to ask directions.
"Don't I know you from somewhere?" Riley asks.
"Yeah . . . you're the guy who arrested me four years ago," the man answers.
"So how are things going now?" Riley asks.