Montgomery County police issued almost 50 percent more traffic citations last month than in February, an increase a police union attributes to patrolmen who feel they have to improve "productivity" by issuing unnecessary tickets.

Police Chief Bernard Crooke contends the increase is simply the result of his officers coming "up to speed" in their work and that there is no evidence that tickets are being issued improperly. But the Fraternal Order of Police says Crooke has instituted a de facto quota system, and that patrolmen fear their careers will be damaged unless they report high numbers of arrests and citations.

According to police statistics, the number of citations for noncriminal traffic offenses, both moving and nonmoving, rose from 9,424 in February to 14,043 in March, an increase of 49 percent. The number of warning citations more than doubled during the same period from 1,074 to 2,363.

The rise in the number of arrests coincides with the introduction of a performance report that every patrolman was required to fill out for the month of March. Known as Form 16, it has been the cause of an ongoing dispute between Crooke and the Fraternal Order of Police, which claims as members 600 of Montgomery County's 732 sworn officers.

Protests from the ranks that the form constituted a de facto quota system for arrests and citations led the department to cut short a planned two-month experiment with it that began in March. After revision, the form could be reintroduced in June, according to a senior officer. The FOP wants the form eliminated altogether.

The form's current design requires officers to report their performance in five categories of police work -- criminal arrests, traffic enforcement, reports and investigations and other activities. After it is approved by the officer's supervisor it is sent to headquarters.

Crooke said its main purpose was to collect data to help develop a permanent "productivity form" to judge the work of individual officers, assist in budget requests and evaluate the department's management programs.

The final form, Crooke said, would give officers more credit for difficult arrests than for routine ones.

But from the beginning the FOP has protested that the form would push officers to make unnecessary arrests and citations out of fear that their careers depended on high numbers. Writing to Crooke last month, Larry Desmond, the FOP president, said a quota system "pits one officer against another and all officers against the public."

Since criminal arrests are relatively rare, officers would tend to stress traffic violations to enhance their forms, he said. According to police figures, the total number of criminal arrests rose from 834 in February to 939 in March.

"The normally law abiding citizen who is driving his or her car over the posted speed limit will automatically be issued a $30 traffice ticket, even though a written or oral warning may be more appropriate in the discretion of the officer," Desmond wrote to Crooke.

According to Desmond, some patrolmen complained last month that outside officers intruded into their beats to write tickets. In some stations, there were arguments over who would use the radar equipment which normally yields a large number of citations.

Desmond said that on one beat, officers informally decided among themselves that each would write 30 tickets during the month so that all would be "average" if compared. Pressures such as these have eased since use of the form was ended, he said.

The union is taking part in a lawsuit alleging that 11 county motorcycle officers were improperly transferred to other less desirable duty in March because they wrote too few tickets.

Crooke said yesterday that the number of citations had been increasing before the introduction of the new forms, and that Form 16 gave added impetus to officers to be more productive. "The officers really hadn't been looked at carefully for several years," he said. He questioned the contention that the forms would automatically result in more tickets being issued, noting that the number of warnings had increased markedly as well.

The FOP also has challenged the decision announced by Crooke and County Executive Charles Gilchrist two months ago to expand the officers' work week from four to five days as part of an effort to combat the increase in serious crime in the county.

The FOP has argued that the plan puts too few officers on the street late at night when most serious crimes occur.