Terrence G. Johnson, a black prison inmate whose 1979 trial in the slayings of two white police officers opened a deep racial wound in Prince George's County, is scheduled to meet this week with parole officials who will decide whether to free him halfway through his 25-year sentence.

If Johnson is released, local black leaders say, he will return to a community that is substantially more integrated, and one whose racial climate is far less poisonous than the one that enveloped him as a 16-year-old defendant.

Yet despite an overall easing of racial tension in Prince George's, Johnson's crimes remain seared in the police department's memory. He shot the two officers while he was being fingerprinted at a police station. In his defense, he said that he was being beaten and that he feared for his life.

Echoing a view shared by many on the force, Maj. G. Frederick Robinson said granting him parole now would be "a gross miscarriage of justice and a social outrage."

Supporters and opponents of parole for Johnson agree that the county is unlikely to see a repeat of the public recriminations that followed the killings and trial, regardless of the outcome of the Tuesday hearing.

Still, if Johnson is released, the tone of public reaction may signal whether racial divisions in Prince George's have been adequately bridged, black leaders said.

"There has been radical change," said former County Council member Floyd E. Wilson Jr. In a community where blacks have made significant political, economic and population gains in the last decade, Wilson said, Johnson's freedom would generate little open hostility.

Johnson's allegations of abuse struck a chord in the county's black community, which had long regarded the largely white police force as racist and brutal.

There were demonstrations on Johnson's behalf, a defense fund was established, and his attorney, R. Kenneth Mundy, sought to shift the jury's focus from Johnson's actions to the department's reputation. The intense emotions aroused by his trial were refueled by the verdicts: guilty of manslaughter, not first-degree murder, in the death of Officer Albert M. Claggett IV, and not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in the death of Officer James B. Swart.

White demonstrators rallied in support of the police, 140 officers staged a sick-out and the department reported hundreds of calls and letters decrying the jury's decision.

On May 3, 1979, a month after the verdicts, two angry, chanting crowds, one black and the other white, nearly came to blows outside the Upper Marlboro courthouse as Johnson was sentenced to the maximum 25 years in prison.

"I think the black community was expressing what it knew to be true, which is that the police back then had a reputation for brutalizing blacks, disrespecting blacks," said Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D-Prince George's), head of the county's Consumer Protection Commission at the time.

Wynn said he has written to Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, urging parole for Johnson if his prison record is as impeccable as his supporters contend.

At a news conference last month, Johnson's backers, organized under the name Justice Denied, said they had gathered about 700 signatures on petitions calling for his release and collected about 150 letters of support.

"I believed something happened to him," recalled Wynn, referring to Johnson's allegations of abuse. "I'm not going to suggest that it was life-threatening, but to a kid, it certainly was a serious matter. And so I remember being relieved at the verdict, relieved he didn't get a first-degree murder verdict with a recommendation for the death penalty."

Johnson, then 15, was arrested in the early hours of June 26, 1978, for allegedly stealing $29.75 in quarters from a laundry coin box, a crime to which his brother later pleaded guilty. In the fingerprinting room of the county's Hyattsville police station, while allegedly being abused by Claggett, Johnson grabbed the officer's .38-caliber revolver and shot him. He then burst into a hallway and opened fire on Swart.

Robinson, who was a lieutenant and the senior officer on duty in Hyattsville when the shootings occurred, said recently that the department in 1978 still retained many attitudes and values of the all-white, all-male bastion he joined in 1966. As for the black community's profound mistrust of the police force, Robinson said, "There may have been some basis for the criticism. But I think some of the criticism was exaggerated."

He said defense attorney Mundy -- more recently known for his defense of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry on drug charges -- exploited those suspicions to win favorable verdicts for Johnson, a tactic that officers deeply resented. Mundy told jurors in the March 1979 trial that brutalizing black suspects was "standard operating procedure" for Prince George's police.

"There's still a feeling among a lot of people that Terrence Johnson never got what he deserved," said one officer, who knew Claggett and Swart from childhood. "In a lot of people's minds, he probably should have been put to death. I mean, Rusty Claggett had two small boys."

If Johnson, who has been denied parole three times, wins it this week, Robinson said, "there'll be reactions {among police} ranging from disappointment to outrage, including all the emotions in between." But in the end, another officer said, "I think there'll just be a lot of simple resignation, a feeling that that's just the way things go."

Black leaders said they also believe Johnson's release would prompt a relatively mild reaction, given the county's improved racial climate and the greater involvement by blacks in politics and policy-making.

At the time of Johnson's trial, for example, the number of blacks in the county's General Assembly delegation and on the County Council and Board of Education totaled nine. Today the number is 16. The clerk of the Circuit Court, Vivian Jenkins, is black, as is State's Attorney Alex Williams (D), who was elected to his second term in November.

Blacks and other minorities accounted for about 40 percent of the Prince George's population in 1980; they now make up more than half.

And the black community's mistrust of the police force has abated somewhat as the department has become more integrated and its investigations of brutality complaints have come under closer civilian oversight, said William Welch, head of the county's Human Relations Commission.

In 1980, black officers made up 12 percent of the 831-member police force, including one sergeant and a lieutenant colonel who had been hired from outside, according to the department. Today, black officers make up more than 30 percent of the 1,233-member force, including a lieutenant colonel, three majors, a captain, at least five lieutenants and more than a dozen sergeants.

"It's not a perfect department," Welch said. "But on the other hand, there's no such thing as a perfect department. I think they've made tremendous strides, and I think it's been recognized by the community."

In October, a Maryland NAACP report cited the Prince George's police force as the "most improved" in the state in dealing with complaints of excessive force. Yet the report's author said the department "still has a long way to go." And although Welch said he has noted a decrease in the number and severity of abuse allegations in the last decade, a Washington Post poll in September found that 52 percent of black Prince George's residents under age 30 believe county police treat blacks "much worse" than whites.

The 1989 death of Gregory Habib, a black man killed in a scuffle with four white officers, revealed lingering mistrust of police. Although his death was ruled accidental, it fueled protests in the black community over alleged use of unnecessary force.

"You have a department that is sincerely trying to be a people's department," said Wilson, the former council member. "Has that been done completely? No. There's certainly room for improvement. But, God, there is one hell of a difference today as opposed to 10 years ago."

Johnson's supporters say the same about him. "Anyone who has met him will tell you that his attitude toward life, toward his community, toward his rehabilitation is something we can all be proud of, and something we all should marvel at," said Rick Mitchell, a Justice Denied organizer.

Another supporter, Taalib-Din Ugdah, noted that Johnson has received a bachelor's degree in business administration while imprisoned; has learned job skills; teaches English, math and science to fellow inmates at the Baltimore City Correctional Center; and has offers of employment upon his release.

Ugdah accused Maryland officials of unfairly denying Johnson parole in the past because of his notoriety and said other inmates sentenced to similar terms for similar crimes have been freed in less time.

However, replied Robinson, the police major, "there's a consensus that he got far less of a sentence than he should have gotten in the first place. Reducing it through parole makes a bad situation worse."