An Alexandria police officer who was reprimanded after he fired a warning shot that stopped a fleeing suspect has filed a lawsuit challenging his department's policy that forbids such use of police firearms.

"I think if I had shot and killed the guy I would have been exonerated," said Officer William H. James, 27, yesterday.

Named in the suit, filed yesterday in Alexandria Circuit Court, are the city of Alexandria; City Manager Douglas Harman and Police Chief Charles T. Strobel.

James, a pistol expert and 16-year veteran of the force, was suspended April 3 for one day without pay, received a letter of reprimand and was deprived of two days annual sick leave as a result of his action.

According to the suit, which the officer's lawyer says will be used as a test case, James and another patrolman were chasing a burglary suspect on May 13, 1977.

James railed the suspect down an alley, called for the man to stop and pulled out his pistol. "I don't know what made me stop. I aimed for his right leg and a split second later I decided not to," he said. Instead, he fired one warning shot into the ground.

The unarmed 22-year-old suspect was apprehended, charged with burglary and later convicted of the crime.

Edward S. Rosenthal, James' attorney, said there is no Virginia statute governing the use of warning shots, although case law permits the use of reasonable force in making an arrest. "James chose the lesser of two evils," Rosenthal said.

City Manager Harman said yesterday the potential for danger from warning shots is too great. But James who says he's no "rabble-rouser," said he's confident he'll win the case. "A lot of other policemen agree with me," he said. "I think Idid the right thing."