D.C. Police Chief Maurice J. Cullinane yesterday strongly defended the use of the controversial "hollow point" bullets with which the city's police force has been equipped since Jan. 7.

Appearing before a City Council committee in the first public debate on the bullets since they became standard equipment for the city's 4,300-member force, Cullinane sharply rebuked those who urged the use of bullets that might inflict less harmful wounds.

"I don't know what a 'humane' bullet is," Culliance told the Council's Judiciary Committee."A bullet is meant to kill you. That's what it's designed for. Clearly, that's what we purchase it for."

The Metropolitan Police Department has some of the most stringent firearms regulations in the nation, he said, prohibiting officers from even drawing their weapons except in extreme situations. "But once you've unholstered it," Cullinane said, "then the rules are that you're shooting to kill."

To disallow use of bullets, as proposed in legislation being considered by the committee, would be harmful to both police officers and city residents, Cullinane said.

Yesterday's hearing centered around several aspects concerning the "hollow point" bullets, which, unlike roundnose bullets in use by the department previously, expand upon impact with their target and strike with more force.

Committee Chairman David A Clarke (D-one) and several witnesses who opposed use of the bullets contended that the accuracy of the shooter was just as influential as the power of the bullet in stopping someone.

In addition, some opponents of the bullets said, the use of the bullets could lead to more innocent deaths. Hollow point bullets are less likely to go through an intended victim and strike someone else, the opponents said, but they are also more likely to kill anyone they strike, since the bullets are more lethal.

Nearly two of every three bullets fired by police officers in the line of duty last year missed their intended targets, a police spokesman acknowledged. Using the hollow point bullets might thus result in more deaths of unintended victims, said the Rev. David Eatotn, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church.

Cullinane said later that only four persons have been wounded with hollow point bullets since the department began using them in January. All four have recovered from their wounds, he said, and no bystanders have been struck.

John Jacob, executive director of the Washington Urban League, said that the use of the more lethal bullets probably would be met with skepticism by many persons from low-income communities, who already were distrustful of the police.

"The result of the manner in which hollow-point bullets have been introduced to the District of Columbia is that myths and fears surround the public's perception of their use by officers," Jacob said.

"In the absence of substantive, ongoing citizen participation in police affairs at the neighborhood level, it is difficult to see how police introduction of hollow point bullets can be viewed with anything but suspicion by low-income community members.

Several police citizen advisory committees sent persons to the hearing to support the use of the bullets. Legislation under consideration by the committee was sponsored by the late Council member Julius Hobson (Statehood-at large) and would prohibit use of the bullets. That legislation was introduced on the same day that police began using the hollow-point bullets.