Policemen and policewomen from across the United States and Puerto Rico paid silent tribute to their 156 fellow officers who died in the line of duty last year at a 90-minute ceremony yesterday on Capitol Hill.

One by one, relatives -- mostly mothers and wives of the fallen officers -- each placed a red carnation in a star-shaped wreath in memory of the dead during the the National Peace Officers Memorial Day service, which included an address by Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

"Today the people we honor are illustrations of the devotion to duty which all who are being honored here have demonstrated," Meese told an audience of more than 2,500.

It was a solemn service held on the Capitol grounds under a slate-gray sky that threatened rain. Swift breezes rustled police banners and chased young children into the arms of their parents.

Debbie Bryant of Columbia, Miss., was among those whose eyes reddened with emotion as a police choir sang. Bryant said her husband of almost 12 years, Jerry Bryant, was killed in January while trying to arrest two burglary suspects.

"They shot him nine times," she said as her daughters, ages 2 and 5, competed for her attention. She said the visit to Washington for this fourth annual ceremony and two days of seminars to help police families cope with the death of an officer has been helpful. "You learn to relate to others' experiences."

But the ceremony was more than a "fine and final paying of respects," as one organizer put it. Throughout the day, speakers on and off the podium described the nation's police as underappreciated public servants who have to struggle with legislators, courts and public officials who do not understand police work.

Richard A. Boyd, national president of the Grand Lodge Fraternal Order of Police, blamed the Supreme Court and Congress for creating "obstacles" that prevent police from doing their jobs. He blamed "legal do-gooders" who he said constantly second-guess police tactics and allow "terrorists and criminals to thumb their noses at the criminal justice system."

In recent years, Meese said, there has been reason for optimism. He noted that crime in the United States has declined for three consecutive years and a new respect among Americans for the "dangerous and vital role that law enforcement plays in the lives of our communities" has developed.

But Meese said more changes are needed and he pledged to work to "remedy some of the things we know are wrong . . . . We can try to change court decisions that have increased the danger to the peace officers of our country," he said. "We can try to enact laws that provide better tools for the police to use in carrying out their responsibilities.

But after the speeches, the salutes and symbols of glory, the families inevitably were again left to their memories.

"There was a lot of honor paid to him, and of course it made me feel good," said Allen Eney of Silver Spring, speaking of his son, Christopher S. Eney, killed last year in a U.S. Capitol Police training accident.

"We feel good that Christopher has gone to be with his Lord," said his mother Frances. "That's the most important thing."