In the city of Washington, we are now told, certain police officers go out into the night, spot a crowd, issue a warning and then move in to make random arrests on virtually nonexistent charges. They then hold their own little court, do their own plea-bargaining and levy their own fines. It is all part of the war on crime but it is not clear who is suffering the most--criminals or our civil liberties.

In fact, all during the time the cops were converting themselves into some sort of triple threat--police, judge and jury--the rate for violent crime just kept going up and up: 62 percent over three years. What was going down and down was, it seems, the department's respect for the laws of the city, not to mention the Constitution of the United States.

No matter. Results are what count. The mayor is running for reelection and one of the things he knows is that street people, not to mention criminals, do not vote. But people who do vote are scared to death by the increase in crime. They want results, not accolades from the American Civil Liberties Union. Too bad they will get neither.

In fact, it is not too much to suggest that some cops in this town are a bit out of control. A Washington Post series on the police tells us that in the 3rd Police District, one captain imposes arrest quotas. Officers who do not make the quota are disciplined. They are given weekend shifts and night shifts, the sorts of hours usually assigned to rookies. Arrests are made to fulfill a quota, not in response to a crime.

That's nothing. In the same district, the cops engaged in what they called Sasquatch raids. They would spot a crowd, warn the people in it that they should move on and then, after waiting a minute or two, move in and make arrests. In doing so, they not only misapplied the city's so-called incommoding laws, but also arrested people without probable cause.

But the Post series tells us that some cops didn't stop there. They then took the arrested person to the station house where they engaged in a little plea bargaining--dealing both on the charge itself and on the fine. The trouble is that those are the functions of prosecutors and judges, not the police. But you can hardly blame the cops for condensing the process since no prosecutor would want to handle such an arrest and no judge would convict and levy a fine. The entire procedure, in fact, is nothing more than harassment. Even some of the cops admit that.

Their candor is understandable. In the last several months, the cops in Washington have openly harassed prostitutes, arresting them for almost anything other than prostitution, erecting barricades in the street and strictly enforcing traffic regulations on men cruising the city's red light district. To all this, the city's political leadership has either responded with bounteous praise or, just as bad, silence. It was only when the police opened up the hydrants on street crowds and revived images of Southern civil rights demonstrations that the police were ordered to behave themselves. Other than that, though, apparently almost anything goes.

The police do not operate in a vacuum. There is enormous pressure on them to do something about crime--even though, truth be told, there isn't very much they can do. As a result, the cops have opened up on the one area in which they can be effective: the appearance of crime. This is not to be sneezed at. The appearance of crime is not only linked to crime itself--prostitutes, for instance, not only look tacky, they are in fact engaged in an illegal activity--but it goes a long way toward explaining why some people are so fearful of crime. The crowd that the officers disperse with their Sasquatch routine may pose no danger, but I, for one, would not like to walk through it.

But the way to deal with that crowd or with prostitutes is not by doing what they are doing--breaking the law. It is not only that two wrongs do not make a right, it is that when the wrong is done to you by the police, there is precious little you can do about it. You certainly cannot call a cop. This is something the mayor himself ought to know from his days as a civil rights activist. It is up to him now to rein in his police department. It's bad enough that crime is out of control. It's no help that the police are, too.