Alan Chertok, a Prince George's County policeman, stared straight ahead, his face almost blank. "Every time I walk down the hall I can see Brian lying there dying," he said.

"When I bring a prisoner in, he'll say, 'Where's the room? Where did Claggett get shot?' Some of them will tell I'm gonna get it just like Claggett and Swart did."

Albert M. Claggett IV - known as Rusty - and James Brian Swart - who went by Brian - have been dead since June 26, shot to death in the basement of the Hyattsville station as Claggett attempted to fingerprint a youth on suspicion of breaking into a laundromat coin box.

The officers were white, the suspect black, and in the atmosphere of tension that has permeated relations between the county police force and the black community, a group of county residents immediately rallied to the side of Terrence G. Johnson, the 15-year-old youth charged with the killings.

Another significant but less vocal group, however, has moved to support Claggett's widow, and, indeed, the entire Prince George's police force. They see Claggett and Swart as innocent victims, even martyrs, shot to death in cold blood.

"We all know what's being said and what's been in the papers and on television," said Officer Steve Long, one of Swart's closest friends. "We talk about what the people on the other side are trying to make of this. We think it's rotten, but we know it's not going to go away."

Those who support the officers do not want the Terrence Johnson case to become a political issue. "There is no issue involved here," Fraternal Order of Police President Laney Hester said."A crime has been committed and the person who committed it should be prosecuted. Period."

But Hester and others know it will not be quite that simple. As pro-Johnson groups began to organize, police officers announced they would show up in masse at Johnson's court appearances to support their slain colleagues.

Wary of a confrontation, Hester discouraged them, but now many more policemen angered by the publicity the Johnson supporters have received, say they will be at the trial.

"We want people to know there's two sides to this thing not just the side that's been yelling about it," one Hyattsville officer said. "We don't want any trouble. We just want both sides to be heard."

Thus far, aside from what the police call "verbal garbage," there has been no noticeable increase in racial tension on the street. But both sides agree that the pending status of the case has a lot to do with that.

"We know damn well that this isn't just Terrence Johnson's trial," Long said softly. "Our whole department's going to be on trial. They're going to drag stuff up from years ago to try and prove that something went on in that room.

"Between now and then we're certainly not going to do anything, anything at all, that will give them any ammunition. It probably means taking a lot more lip, but that's OK."

Or, as Johnson's lawyer R. Kenneth Mundy said. "The police are going to be pluperfect in their behavior until this trial is over."

The trial is now scheduled for Jan. 29 after Judge Jacob S. Levin granted Mundy a postponement earlier this month.

Until then, the story of what happened in the Hyattsville station fingerprinting room in the moments before the shooting will not be known.

Johnson and his older brothe Melvin had been picked up on suspicion of breaking into a laundromat coin box at about 2 a.m.

About 40 minutes later, Claggett took Terrence Johnson into a small room in the station's basement to be fingerprinted. At 2:42 a.m., police say, Johnson ripped Claggett's gun from its holster and fired six shots. Swart, shot in the stomach, dragged himself 10 feet down the hall before dying. Claggett died minutes later at Prince George's County General Hospital.

"Honestly, black, white or blue I don't understand how people can support someone's who's accused of committing a murder - two murders," Chertok said. "What does race have to do with that?"

But race has a lot to do with this story. Although outgoing County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., who flatly refused to discuss any aspect of the case, has talked often of the improved relations between county police and the community, there is still deep-seated resentment on both sides, especially between rank-and-file police officers and many black Prince George's residents.

"There's no question that what's happened in the past has a lot to do with this," said State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. who is prosecuting Johnson, his first case in almost three years. "Look, race relations between police and the community are about a million times better now than they were a few years ago. But people remeber the past. That's what a lot of these groups are using now - the past."

Marshall's contention, and the contention of all of those who believe Johnson guilty, is that no widespread support for Johnson exists, despite his supporters claims.

"I think what you have here are some groups, mainly political groups, who are trying to use this situation, and use Terrence Johnson, for their own benefit," Marshall said. "I haven't seen any polarization of the community. I've just seen a few pockets of support and I really don't think there are that many people involved."

In some ways the question of how much support there is for Johnson appears to have become almost as important to some people as his guilt or innocence.

But to those closest to the two dead officers, there are no unanswered questions. There is only grief, a kind of uncontrollable grief that has not faded with time.

George Biebee worked on the same squad with Brian Swart and is still close to his parents, Edgar and Rita Swart.

"I think it may be worse for them now than it was at first," Bieber said. "They're completely devastated. The loss in just starting to set in. They realize that he's really gone and they miss him . . . They miss him a lot."

Swart, 25, was a bachelor; Claggett, 26, was married and the father of two children.

Claggett's widow, Caroline, is "still rocky, not back together yet and who can blame her," said Hester. "The fact that all of this won't go away makes it hard for her to start living some kind of a normal life again."

Since the shootings five area police organizations have fund raisers for the officers' survivors and several restaurant chains turned over portions of their sales for a week to the families. In all, the fundraisers have turned over about $5,000 to the families. In addition, Claggett's widow and children have been helped financially by Heroes, Inc., a group which helps support the families of police and firemen killed in the line of duty.

While Caroline Claggett and the Swarts have been exposed to the controversy on a daily basis, Claggett's and Blanche Claggett, have been more than 1,000 miles away in south Florida.

Still, they have heard of the issues being raised and Mrs. Claggett says it "makes my heart ache." "I resent the fact that some members of the public would do this type of thing (support Johnson" she said.

"They can't possibly think what happened was right or that he's (Johnson) innocent. But there's an element in that county that always wants us to stir things up. They're the ones who've made the county what it is today."

Alan Chertok, the officer who is haunted by the vision of Swarts death said, "I don't think we should go around and try to use this tragedy as a platform to complain about the problems we have on this police force. I know there are groups on the other side trying to do that, but we can't afford to be like that.

"Whatever happens at this trial, whether he's found completely guilty, acquitted or whatever, Johnson's lost an awful lot," he said. "It's likely that he's going to spend a good part of what should be that best years of his life in jail.

"But it still isn't as bad as it is for Rusty and Brian. They haven't just lost a few years. They've lost it all."