Three Arlington women police officers who refused to act as decoys in a purse-snatching stakeout they said was unnecessarily dangerous, have been suspended for three weeks without pay on grounds of insubordination.

Police chief William K. (Smokey) Stover, who ordered the women suspended on Jan. 23, said yesterday it was the first time in his memory that three officers had refused to accept such as assignment.

"Their action is very unusual," agreed William Dolan, an attorney for the Arlington Police Beneficiary Association, who is representing two of the officers in an appeal of Stover's action.

Detective Elizabeth LeBaron, 32, a seven-year veteran of the force, said that she and two other officers, Elizabeh Shelton, 27, and Marcia Gavin, 30, decided independently not to participate in the stakeout because it was "unorganized and unplanned." Shelton and Gavin each have been on the force more than five years.

Stover, who said he was "surprised and disappointed" by the refusals, described the three women as "very good girls" with no previous record of disciplinary action. Stover said they were asked by Capt. Lendell Holsclaw, head of a newly reorganized major crimes unit, to act as decoys in an attempt to catch a band of pursesnatchers operating near a shopping center at the intersection of Lee Highway and N. Glebe Road.

Stover said the three-week stakeout to which 12 officers had been assigned would have involved walking in poorly lighted areas near the shopping center at night.

According to Stover, one female officer did agree to participate in the stakeout.

"I've always respected authority and orders," LeBaron said yesterday."I've been a decoy many times before and there's always a certain amount of danger. But the other stakeouts were a lot better organized than this one."

"This is not a case of sex discrimination," said Shelton, one of 26 female officers in the 287-member department. "If I'd been a male my decision would be the same."

Stover said that following suspension, all three officers will be reassigned to street patrol without a reduction in pay. Under department rules, Stover could have reprimanded or dismissed the women.

LeBaron said that the three women have hired lawyers and will appeal their suspensions to a three-member police advisory panel. A final decision on the panel's recommendations will be made by County Manager W. Vernon Ford.

All three women are married to Arlington police officers. Shelton and LeBaron said their husbands supported their decisions. Gavin could not be reached for comment.