The International Brotherhood of Police Officers has formally asked Metro officials to expand present policy to allow off-duty police officers to ride the buses and subways free.

The IBPO request - in the form of a May 19 letter from President Larry Simons to Metro Assistant General Manager Nicholas Roll - comes against the backdrop of increased demands that Metro beef up its security, following the rape of a female bus driver in Southeast Washington last month.

"This thing hit the fan with the bus drivers' strike in the Southeast," said IBPO Vice-President Larry Melton. "I seized upon it as the right time to submit the letter."

Bus drivers staged a day-long walkout to protest poor security after the woman was raped.

The IBPO argues that if off-duty police officers are allowed on Metro free-of-charge, more officers will choose the bus and subway as their primary means of transportation. This, IBPO says, will cut down on crime there, since a police officer is "technically on duty 24 hours a day," and would intervene if he saw a crime being committed on a Metrobus or train.

Under present Metro policy, police officers in uniform can board free of charge. Plainclothed officers on duty board free only with a special boarding pass that is signed by their precinct commanders and returned at the end of the day.

Many police officers - and most district commanders - said that while expanding the free-ride policy to off-duty police officers would probably deter bus and subway crime, such an expansion would merely put the official stamp of approval on what's been common practice for years.

A one detective put it, "I've been riding the bus free for 20 years - all I have to do is show my police badge."

Melton said the IBPO recommendation was originally designed to help police officers with parking problems when they drive to work, but that the police union is now pressing the hard-sell "increased security" approach.

"It just makes sense" to allow police officers to ride free, Melton said. "You're getting more police service and it's not costing you anything."

Metro transit police have stepped up efforts to curb bus crime. Silent alarms are now in use on buses, and police are reportedly cracking down on the minor infractions that had before gone unenforced - the no-smoking rules, for example.

George Davis, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union that staged the drivers' walkout to protest the lax security on buses, said "I would support it (the free-ride proposal), certainly I would."

The idea is also getting enthusiastic response from police chiefs and District Commanders, who vetoed a similar suggestion a few years ago as being a "gratuity."

"I don't see any problem with it," said Deputy Chief William R. Dixon, seventh district commander. "It's actually to (Metro's) advantage, so as far as I'm concerned that couldn't be considered a gratuity."

"I see it as an added security," said fourth district Deputy Chief Charles M. Troublefield. "Of course, it would have to be restricted to police officers and not their families" to avoid crossing that thin line and becoming a gratuity.

Should Metro decide to take the advice of the IBPO, and hear the enthusiastic and collective welcome from bus drivers, passengers, and police officers alike, Washington would be joining several other major cities in that way, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco - cities with, by most accounts, successful mass transportation systems - all allow a policeman's badge to substitute for a fare card, whether the officer is on or off duty.

Only in New York is the free ride policy the exception and not the rule, that city having abandoned the policy about three years ago during the city's fiscal crunch. And according to a New York City transit authority spokesman, "the people want them (free rides for policemen) back."