Mayor Marion Barry, Police Chief Burtell Jefferson and police union officials met for more than an hour in Barry's office yesterday and emerged hopeful of finding a way to avoid the planned layoff of 204 District police officers.

But at the same time, union leaders announced a campaign with leaflets to seek public support for their opposition to layoffs and the other proposed spending cuts that they said will lead to an increase in street crime.

"The reduction in force will make residents of D.C. hostages in their own homes," said Larry Melton, vice president of Local 442 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers which represents the department's rank-and-file officers.

Melton said in addition to the 204 officers who would be dismissed, 200 officers would be lost through attrition. There are 3,880 police officers on the force.

Melton said union leaders had offered the mayor and the police chief alternatives, including reductions of mid-level management, temporarily closing the police training academy and early retirements in lieu of layoffs.

Jefferson said he is considering a proposal that would allow officers to retire after 19 1/2 years instead of the current 20 years. The intervening six months would be counted as leave without pay.

The officers would begin receiving retirement benefits immediately, and would be allowed to start second careers six months earlier, according to a police spokesman.

Jefferson's proposal would not require City Council action. Another retirement proposal, sponsored by council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), would allow retirement after 19 years for both police officers and firefighters.

"I believe that reducing upper ranks and midlevel supervisory personnel is a much better way to trim costs than to lay off the officers and firefighters who walk the beats and put out the blazes," Kane said yesterday.

Jefferson said he hoped the department could avoid any layoffs by cutting other operating expenses. In a message to his officers yesterday, Jefferson said every $21,000 in savings through such cuts could save the job of one officer.

Jefferson would have to save $5.6 million by other spending cuts to avoid the layoffs.

Larry Simons, president of the union, said he is optimistic that the layoffs will be avoided. "I don't see how the three of us could fail," Simons said, referring to Jefferson, Barry and himself.

While Simons, Jefferson and Barry were meeting at the District Building, other union officials held a press conference at the Spanish Catholic Center.

Melton said the site was chosen because among the first officers to be laid off would be many Hispanics, who were hired most recently.

"They (recruiters) went to New York and brought these officers down here," he said. "Now these officers are being told they will be cut."

Officer Wilson Barreto, a Hispanic who has been on the force for five years, said Spanish-speaking officers are needed in the Hispanic community. "There is a language problem and a culture problem" that can be better handled by Hispanic officers, he said. There are 50 Hispanics on the force.

The Rev. Sean O'Malley, director of the Spanish Catholic Center, said many Hispanic residents do not speak English and thus are reluctant to report crimes to police who do not speak Spanish.

He said he is not only concerned about Hispanic officers, but also the effect that the layoffs might have on the poor. "As most of us realize, the victims of crimes are usually the poor. The plight of the poor will be affected."

Melton said police officers "will be standing on corners" throughout the city, distributing leaflets, urging citizens to send letters to Barry opposing the cuts.

Before the press conference, a woman identfying herself as a representative of the Council of the Hispanic Community and Agencies, said the group was boycotting WDVM-TV (Channel 9) and raised the possibility that reporters from the station would be barred from the news conference. The group was dissatisfied with the station's programs for Hispanics.

However, after some discussion, all reporters, including the reporter for Channel 9, were allowed to stay.