The three men accusing Alexandria's Director of Public Safety Charles T. Strobel of cutting short a 1984 police drug investigation long have been at odds with the police force's leadership.

The latest attack by Alexandria police officers Joseph Morrash and Morton M. Ford and former police investigator Charles Cox came last week in a lawsuit accusing Strobel of using his office to serve his own "personal and political ends" and violating their civil rights by the way he runs the police force.

Strobel and some senior police officials say the three are malcontents, seeking retaliation for what they consider mistreatment on the force. Strobel, whose actions in the drug case are being reviewed by a special grand jury, has defended his handling of the 1984 drug probe as proper and has charged that Cox, one of the first officers assigned to the case, was removed for being uncooperative.

Morrash, Cox and Ford said their suit, filed in federal district court in Alexandria, is part of an effort to clean up a police department in which decisions are based on favoritism, investigations have been manipulated and information has been covered up. The suit, which asks $850,000 in damages, also names the city, Lt. John R. Stedman, the force's top personnel officer, and Strobel as defendants.

"Our police department is a very good police department, men-wise," Morrash said recently. "But it's good not because of the management and administration, but in spite of it . . . . Strobel rules by intimidation, not by respect . . . . You don't open your mouth in opposition, you go with the flow."

An appointee of City Manager Douglas Harman, Strobel has said the charges are untrue, question his integrity and are politically motivated. "I know the truth to be with my administration, myself and my department," he said. At worst, he has said, he may be guilty of bad judgment in his handling of the drug case.

It is not the first time Morrash and Ford have been at odds with Strobel, who is also the city's police chief. Some officials say the seeds of the current controversy may lie in a confrontation that began in the summer of 1983.

Ford, an Alexandria police officer since 1971, heard allegations of criminal misconduct by Stedman, then head of the police department's special investigations division and one of Ford's superiors.

Though the alleged incident occurred eight years earlier, Ford said in a recent interview he believed it was his duty under department regulations to report the allegations to the force's internal affairs unit.

A few days after making a written report of what he had heard, Ford said he was told by a superior that Strobel himself would investigate the charges and that the matter would not be reviewed by internal affairs.

Shortly afterward, Ford -- who was shot in 1974 while apprehending suspects in a liquor store robbery, was transferred from the vice unit to patrol. Ford said he considered the move punishment for reporting the allegations, but said his superiors denied this.

In September 1983, Ford complained about his transfer to the Alexandria Police Association, a benevolent association to which more than 90 percent of the force belongs. Angered by Ford's charges, the association decided to conduct its own investigation of the allegations against Stedman, and of Strobel's handling of them. Morrash, Ford and another officer were designated as the group's investigating team.

(The association sent a report on its investigation of the Stedman allegations to Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch in early 1984. Kloch said that he found no evidence of a crime and that he considered the matter closed.)

In October 1983, Morrash, who won the Routh Robbins Award that year for exceptional police work, also was transferred from the burglary to midnight patrol. He, too, viewed it as punishment for his part in the internal investigation and initiated a complaint. The city's personnel department fought his grievance first in circuit court and then before a binding arbitration panel.

In October 1984, the three-man panel, which included a representative of the police department, ruled unanimously that Morrash was punitively transferred for his part in the association's internal investigation and ordered him reinstated immediately.

Following disclosure of allegations about the 1984 drug investigation Stedman filed his own rejoinder against Cox and Morrash in a suit in Alexandria Circuit Court, alleging that two men are disgruntled employes and "misfits" trying to cover up their own ineptness.

Stedman's suit seeks $550,000 in damages from Morrash and Cox for what Stedman alleges was a conspiracy by them and Ford to discredit him, Strobel and Alexandria Sheriff Michael E. Norris through "falsehoods and deliberate lies" about the drug investigation.

In his suit Stedman alleges Morrash pursued the internal investigation because he was angry with his refusal to approve Morrash's requested transfer to the vice and narcotics squad in early 1983. Morrash said in an interview his involvement in the association's investigation had nothing to do with Stedman's refusal to transfer him.

Strobel has defended the way he handled the allegations against Stedman, which he said were not proven. "I still do not feel I erred in any way in making the review I made," Strobel said in an interview. "It was investigated two times by this department . . . and there ain't nothing more there."

Strobel did transfer Stedman from the special investigations division to head of the patrol division after the allegations were raised in 1983.

While the Morrash grievance was being adjudicated, Cox and another police officer began their work on the now controversial drug probe.

The special grand jury is in its second week of hearing testimony into original allegations by Cox, Morrash and Ford that Strobel -- despite promising leads -- prematurely ended the investigation. Cox has said the drug probe was targeted at alleged drug trafficking in an Alexandria restaurant and possible drug use by Norris.

Cox, 38, who joined the Alexandria police force in 1968 also has won the Routh Robbins Award for superior police work.

Though he had no prior experience on drug cases, he was assigned the Norris investigation in late 1983, Cox said. In April 1984 he said he was told by his superior, Lt. Arthur Bratcher, that the investigation was over and he was transferred to patrol. Cox said that no one ever complained to him that he was being uncooperative, as Strobel has alleged.

In August 1984 Cox resigned from the force. He was under review at the time for misusing sick leave. Cox, an inveterate bowler who said he scores in the 180s, said he did go bowling during two weeks of sick leave taken to recuperate from a stress fracture. He now works as a car salesman.