The District of Columbia's alcohol detoxification center, required by law to remain open 24 hours a day, has failed to keep doctors on duty around the clock, and as a result some alcoholics have been turned away from the facility, according to police and advocates of alcoholism treatment.

The staffing problem has drawn sharp criticism from the Washington Area Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, which has closely monitored the 60-bed facility on the grounds of the D.C. General Hospital.

The problem also has discouraged some police officers from picking up drunks and taking them to the center. "The hours at the center are very erratic," said Kathy Maguire, an official of the alcoholism council. "If a doctor isn't there, people are told to wait outside. In a number of cases, police and drunks have to wait outside in the cold."

Deputy Chief Ronald Cox, commander of the police department's 1st District, said yesterday that policemen often call to see if a doctor is on duty at the center before deciding whether to pick up a drunk. If no doctor is there and the person is not considered a danger to himself or others, "we usually just leave them" where they are found, Cox said.

"There's not much we can do," Cox said. "It has been a problem."

Maguire's group, which began monitoring the detoxification center last October, found that there frequently was no doctor on duty late at night or early in the morning. For example, the group found that during one week last year, on five days there were periods of up to several hours when no physician was on duty.

Dr. Ernest Hardaway, the D.C. Commissioner of Public Health, said yesterday he was puzzled by the reports of erratic hours at the center because the city hired two additional physicians about five months ago to ensure there would be round-the-clock professional staffing at the center. Moreover, he said he has copies of signed work schedules indicating that doctors have been at the center 24 hours a day.

Hardaway promised to order an investigation to determine whether any of the city's doctors were "sloughing off" by not putting in a full day's work at the center.

"I have very serious concerns," he said "If this is happening we will deal with it . . . . It's a new day for the city . We're not going to allow people to slough off."

Dr. Alyce Gullattee, the administrator of the city's alcohol and drug abuse services who oversees the detoxification center, declined to discuss the matter.

The detoxification center primarily provides emergency alcoholism treatment for the city's down-and-out. "For the majority of people who go there, this is their place of last resort," said Maguire.

Public health authorities adopted a new policy about a year ago requiring that a doctor be present to admit and release patients, but they lacked sufficient manpower to assure 24-hour coverage.

Police Chief Maurice Turner said yesterday that his department has "broached" the problem with Department of Human Services officials.

"I don't know how big a problem it is," Turner said. "It hasn't been brought to my attention that police officers are having a big problem with it."