Three of the largest labor unions in the metropolitan area are planning possible challenges to each other for the right to represent the District's 3,400 police officers and 2,000 prison and jail employes.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which has 6,000 members locally, including the Metropolitan Police Department's rank and file, is attempting to organize the employes of the D.C. Corrections system, who are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees.

Meanwhile, the FOP itself faces a potential challenge from the 30,000-member United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 400, which met recently with dissident police officers seeking to oust the FOP as the police bargaining agent, according to Local 400 President Thomas McNutt.

In both cases, the challenges focus on whether a police labor organization like the FOP is best suited to represent police and prison guards, or whether those employes could gain more clout with affiliation with a larger, more broadly based union.

At 200,000 members, the FOP is the nation's largest police union, but it is structured as a fraternal organization and lacks the extensive bargaining experience, union structure and affiliations of AFL-CIO member unions.

The FOP won the right to represent District police by dislodging the International Brotherhood of Police Officers in December 1981 in a bitterly contested election.

That victory generated renewed interest in the FOP among D.C. jail employes and guards at the city prison at Lorton, who "have decided they want to join the law-enforcement family of unions" and disaffiliate from the AFGE, said Gary Hankins, a D.C. police officer who heads the FOP's Metropolitan Police labor committee.

At the city jail and the prison at Lorton, AFGE has been the bargaining agent since 1954. The AFGE represents 10,000 mostly blue collar city workers and 750,000 government employes nationally.

But FOP supporters have attempted several times to unseat the AFGE, with the most serious challenge thus far coming last year when the police union signed up between one-third and one-half of the rank-and-file officers in an effort to petition for a union representation election.

Although the number of signatures exceeded the required 30 percent, the petition was short-circuited by the city Public Employe Relations Board on procedural grounds. Representation challenges may be made only 60 to 120 days before the expiration of union contracts.

Hankins said FOP supporters among prison and jail guards are organizing a new challenge to AFGE, to be made next year, when the current contract expires. He said prison employes favor the police union because it is more receptive to issues of particular and specific concern to corrections employes.

But the president of AFGE Local 1550, Kenneth Bynum, said he is confident his union will turn back the challenge because only a small, "misguided" minority seeks police union affiliation.

"Our knowledge of the FOP, along with their track record at the police department, shows that any group which elects FOP as their representative is foolhardy," Bynum said. He said the FOP lacked experience in running a labor union.

Hankins in turn, said he was confident the FOP could survive a challenge, especially from a nonpolice union like the United Food and Commercial Workers. Police are frequently concerned with issues such as the right to carry firearms off duty or the question of the scope of arrest powers. "If you take those concerns to a union that handles grocery clerks and street cleaners, they just can't understand the importance," Hankins said.

However, UFCW, which represents employes of the region's major food chains, has recently begun representing police officers as well, winning an election to represent the 80-member Annapolis Police Department and negotiating a contract that was signed earlier this month, according to W. Gary Sauter, the local's secretary-treasurer.

Local 400 also has signed up a substantial number of Maryland State Police, Sauter said, but has not yet petitioned for an election.

Local 400 met earlier this month with three D.C. police organizers seeking to challenge the FOP, and further talks are planned with dissatisfied FOP members from the District force, Sauter said. He said dissatisfaction is common. "For years, FOP has done nothing for these guys, except being a social club," he said.

Hankins, however, said that pay raises of 6 and 7 percent his union obtained for D.C. police are the highest among police in the area.