When Joyce F. Leland assumed command of Washington's 7th Police District last week, she took on a 10.7-square-mile area east of the Anacostia River where most of the predominantly black populace of 115,000 live at the bottom of the city's socioeconomic totem pole.

It is an area referred to by some of those who police it as the "Anacostia county sheriff's department" -- an urban frontier that at its worst is violent, drug-ridden and extremely dangerous.

For Leland, a resident of the area and a 20-year veteran of the police department, the 7th district represents the latest challenge in a precedent-setting career that began when police work offered women little more than a chance to be a social worker with a gun.

Settling in behind the commander's desk of the converted apartment building that serves as 7th District headquarters, Leland played down the fact that she is the first woman to head a police district in the department's 123-year history. Leland said that the important thing is that she has been given a chance.

When asked at a news conference recently if she thinks she brings any special strengths to the post because she is female, she responded with a confident smile to the TV cameras, "I'm just talented."

Upon learning that Police Chief Maurice T. Turner wanted her to command the 7th District, "I said to myself, I want to be like Isaiah when he told God, 'Send me, send me,' " said Leland, 43, a matronly looking woman with an eye for the dramatic. "I intend to be more involved in the community. I hope to make a difference, really."

And, she added, with a lift of her chin, "Of course, I want to be chief of police."

Leland has come a long way from her first assignment -- in the department's now-defunct Women's Bureau to work with children's problems. Yet, she has not forgotten how long it took for male counterparts to take seriously her steadily expanding authority.

" Male officers would call up and I would say, 'This is Lt. Leland.' And they would say, 'Look, I don't mean no harm, lady, and all that other stuff, but I want to talk to a real lieutenant,' " the new commander recalled.

Today, Leland appears to have little trouble being recognized as a real deputy chief of police.

One of her first moves as commander was to initiate the transfer to her district of Wyndall C. Watkins, a black captain from the 4th District, replacing one of four white captains.

Leland, who is black, explained: "The thing you have to understand is that the 7th District has 115,000 people over there, and I would venture to say that it is 90 percent black. There were no black captains there, so I got one."

Before her promotion, Leland served as director of the department's Equal Employment Opportunities Office for 18 months.

"To have four white captains is just kind of strange in an area that is that heavily populated black," she said. "It wouldn't sell."

Leland said she has had no negative reaction to the move.

Said one of the remaining captains, Charles B. Moore, "She's going to be great."

That is typical of Leland, her supporters say: As an administrator she is prone to take swift, bold steps while disarming potential detractors with patience and good humor.

"Joyce will do quite well," said Assistant Chief Marty Tapscott. "The fact that she has 'social skills,' and those are her own words, will play a major role out there.

"I think people will work for her," he said. "If she can do that, she'll be all right."

Leland succeeds Deputy Chief James K. Kelly, a 28-year veteran who just retired. Kelly was the district's sixth commander and is widely credited with changing the image of the district as a dumping ground for errant D.C. police officers.

"What Joyce Leland is inheriting is a district that is running smoothly," Kelly said in a telephone interview, "a community that is at ease with us."

Yet, according to police, politicians and residents, the 7th District has about every police problem an area can have, and more than its share of some.

Unemployment there is profound and unshakeable, and the few middle-class enclaves are like outposts among vacant storefronts and a deteriorating public housing.

More than half the city's school-aged children live in this economically depressed area that is dotted with woods and hilltop vistas of the city.

And drugs -- PCP, marijuana and heroin -- are sold, despite aggressive police work, in a "stop and shop" fashion, with the dealers being pushed from street corner to street corner by sporadic sweeps by police.

The most recent crime statistics show, however, that reported crime in the 7th District has dropped 18 percent from last January to October -- by far the greatest reduction among the city's seven districts. Still, the 7th has a disproportionate amount of certain problems, including some that crime reports do not accurately reflect, such as the high rate of domestic violence.

Sgt. Gary Nelson capsulized the image of the district with dead seriousness recently as he drove his police car through the dark back streets of Barry Farms, a public housing complex: "This is not a nice place to bring your kids up."

Helen Allen, former president of the district's citizens advisory council, said Leland is taking on a "tough job . . . . This is a big area the city's fourth largest district that just doesn't have enough officers," she said. "I'm hoping that Chief Leland will be prepared to give us the things we need."

Leland, a Southwest Washington native who has a degree in sociology from Howard University, said her background helps her to understand the nature of the 7th District.

"There are a lot of economically strapped people who live in the 7th District who come with certain special problems," said Leland, who is working on a master's degree in community psychology at the University of the District of Columbia. "If I do anything, the training will be on how to handle those particular problems.

"I know how to get at the heartbeat of a community."