In the last five weeks, from Fairfax County to the Maryland suburbs, law enforcement officers have shot and killed six persons who apparently had threatened the lives of the officers or bystanders.

In one case, a Southwest Washington man wounded two D.C. police officers before he was killed. In a Fairfax County shooting, the victim was unarmed. Another one, in Wheaton, allegedly turned on an officer with a baseball bat. A fourth victim, this one in Gaithersburg, threatened an officer with a flashlight. An irate driver on a Capital Beltway ramp in Montgomery County, the fifth shooting victim, was armed with a six-inch hunting knife.

And the latest victim, an off-duty D.C. officer walking through his Largo house, was fatally wounded when he allegedly pointed a gun at a Prince George's County officer investigating a burglary report.

So far this year, 14 persons have been shot and killed by police officers in Washington and surrounding counties, compared with 11 deaths in all of 1986. The circumstances in each of the shootings differed. But the immediate questions from friends and family of the victims were much the same: Why did they have to kill him? Why didn't they wound him?

The answer from Prince George's police spokesman Robert Law seems shocking, especially to people whose exposure to police work comes almost exclusively from fictional TV cop shows with stars who can shoot a suspect in the arm from any distance.

"When our officers shoot," Law said, "they shoot to kill."

The responses from police in Fairfax County, Montgomery County, the District and most other police departments would be similar. In fact, police officers are trained to shoot to stop suspects, not to kill them. But because of their firearms training, officers are likely to strike victims in parts of the body where serious or fatal injuries are likely: the chest or abdominal areas.

"Our officers are taught to aim for the largest part visible," said Sgt. Gary Hutchison, the firearms instructor for the Prince George's County Police Department. "We've got to aim for the largest part of the body available, whether it's the chest, shoulder or stomach area."

Montgomery County Police Chief Bernard D. Crooke Jr., who spent 23 years with the D.C. police department, said an officer's purpose in discharging a firearm is to stop the suspect by shooting at the largest mass, even if it is the head of a gun-toting suspect. "We'd prefer that anyone we shot not be killed," Crooke said. "But our purpose is to drop them. And sometimes that results in death. If people die, they die. It's not our preference."

But that is not an adequate explanation for some experts who think too much is left to the discretion of officers.

"It puts the individual police officer in an untenable position," said James Fyfe, professor of justice at the American University and an expert in police operations.

"The departments rely on him to make a life-and-death decision at 3 a.m. in a dark alley. It is unfair. Those decisions should be made by administrators who sit in carpeted offices."

In the wake of last week's fatal shooting of a D.C. officer, at least one official wants to look again at the police policy of shooting to kill. Prince George's County State's Attorney Alex Williams, in naming a special investigator, said part of the probe should focus on "when it's appropriate to disable rather than shoot fatally."

The incidents where officers do draw and fire their weapons bear little resemblance to those on television and in movies, police officials and criminologists said.

"In big cities, police shootings occur within 10 feet," Fyfe said. "The officer has no chance to aim, he points the gun."

Most police departments' regulations for use of deadly force require an officer to believe that his life or the life of another person is being threatened before he fires a weapon.

In most departments, the firing of warning shots has been prohibited since the early to mid-1970s for fear that an innocent person might be struck by the bullet. And firing weapons from or at moving vehicles is either prohibited or strictly limited to cases when, for example, a suspect tries to run over an officer with a vehicle.

The pace of police shootings in the Washington area has been exaggerated somewhat by the recent spate of deaths, including the fatal shooting Monday night of D.C. police officer James L. Gordon by Prince George's County Cpl. Robert W. Raimond. In the District, Maryland suburbs and Northern Virginia, police have used their firearms 38 times this year, compared with 29 in all of 1986, according to statistics compiled last week by The Washington Post.

The increase, many police officers said, is partly a result of the escalating violence accompanying the expanding illegal drug trade in the area. That violence, frequently occurring with automatic and semi-automatic weapons, has accounted for a surge in homicides in the area, including a record number in Prince George's County and a record-setting pace in the District.

It was inevitable, police officials said, that the violence eventually would turn from shootings between drug dealers and users to acts directed against law enforcement officers trying to stem the violence.

They point to the shooting last week of three District officers, bringing the number of D.C. officers shot and wounded to seven in the past two months. Police officials said that officers are likely to be a bit more jumpy because of the recent attacks against officers, but they said that apparently had little influence on what they know about the five recent police shootings.

"It is a bad situation," said Buzz Sawyer, president of the Prince George's County Fraternal Order of Police. "Officers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Officers have guidelines to go by. Criminals have none."

The D.C. Metropolitan Police, Prince George's County police and Maryland State Police are considering changing their standard weapons from .38-caliber revolvers to 9mm semi-automatic weapons to put them on a more even footing with suspects.

Fyfe, the American University professor, said changing service weapons will not alter the number of police shootings. "Most police shootings are over in a matter of seconds, and officers already can empty their six-shooters in a couple of seconds," he said.

What might be more helpful to police is more training on how to avoid getting into situations where officers must decide whether to use deadly force, Fyfe said.

In the fatal shooting of Gordon, for example, some D.C. police officials questioned whether the county police officer should have begun to investigate the possible burglary in progress before backup officers or a police dog arrived. A similar situation in the District would have resulted in a barricade, they said.

Police departments are starting to focus more on such preventive training, Fyfe said, but most often departments provide little assistance in that area and leave decisions on whether to use deadly force to the individual officers.

Harvey Goldstein, the former director of psychological services for the Prince George's County police, said police department's guidelines for using deadly force are broad because of the high number of variables.

"Every police officer develops a sense of what is dangerous to them," Goldstein said. "There are lots of cops who have justification to shoot people and kill them, but they don't. There are people who would not have shot {D.C. officer Gordon}. But they might have been killed."Staff writer Paul Duggan contributed to this report.