A special D.C. police task force has been combing Northwest Washington for a man who could be responsible for as many as 14 sexual assaults since 1984, police confirmed -- but the department has made little or no effort to warn the public.

Police remain hesitant to declare the crimes a pattern, but they say numerous similarities connect the attacks. Most have occurred during September and October, in first-floor garden apartments. In most of the cases, the attacker was described as mild-mannered, almost gentlemanly.

The assaults have occurred in neighborhoods as far south as Georgetown and as far north as Tenley Circle, but all in the 2nd police district, which includes Washington west of Rock Creek Park.

And in the aftermath of each attack, there has been another similarity: District police issued no immediate statement warning residents, even though the assailant remains at large.

These cases, as well as several others handled in recent years by D.C. police and other area police departments, underscore a debate over whether and when it serves residents to warn them that a serial sex criminal is preying on a community.

"It's always been one of the most difficult issues to deal with: When do you go out and make a public release?" said D.C. Assistant Police Chief Isaac Fulwood. While public warnings can raise community awareness, Fulwood said they can spawn "copycat" crimes or merely cause the assailant to change the method or location of his attacks.

But the department's current practice, of virtually never issuing public warnings to potential victims, is sharply criticized as preventing women from taking steps to protect themselves and to alert authorities to possible suspects.

"I think people have a right to know this information," said Nkenge Toure, director for community education for the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. "People are going to be frightened, but the information gives people more power and control. {Having} no information leaves people oblivious to what's going on -- and vulnerable."

The Northwest Washington case is one of two similar -- but police say unrelated -- cases that have occurred in the past year in the District and Montgomery County, and the two departments have taken markedly different approaches in alerting the media.

In the Northwest case, police said, a man enters garden-level apartments through unlocked doors or open windows. He usually tells the victims that he is armed and that they will not be harmed if they cooperate. He has been described by some victims as articulate and mild-mannered.

In addition to the 14 cases dating to 1984, Fulwood said, one assault in 1982 is being studied by the D.C. investigative task force.

Although the Northwest Washington attacks date back more than three years, D.C. police issued their first public statement on the case Thursday -- more than a week after local media organizations initiated inquiries about the case following the most recent attack on Christmas Eve.

The release cited six of the 15 attacks that are being investigated, describing them, without elaboration, as burglaries "that appeared to be sexually motivated."

By contrast, Montgomery County police issued a public statement in November after a man -- dubbed the "apologetic rapist" because he told his victims he was sorry -- assaulted eight women in a 1.5-square-mile area of Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Silver Spring.

Despite fears that media coverage would traumatize victims and cause the rapist to "go underground," Montgomery County Lt. James Lee said police gambled with publicity because they were stumped and needed public help in solving the case. "We weren't getting very far in our investigation."

Although no arrest has been made, Lee said the warning appears to have produced benefits. "We have had no rapes that we've been made aware of that have been linked to him" since the publicity, Lee said.

Spokesmen in Prince George's and Fairfax said their police departments alert the media when sex crimes develop a clear pattern. "If we think there's a pattern, we put it out" to the public, said Officer Judy Dailey, a Fairfax police spokeswoman.

Fulwood acknowledged that "there are benefits to the public knowing; the greatest is a heightened awareness."

But there are several drawbacks, he said. He said public warnings may tip off the suspect to what the police know and help him change his pattern to throw investigators off the track. "Certainly we're happy when he stops, but we know at some point he's going to do it again."

But in interviews, residents in areas where the sex assaults have occurred emphasized the most serious result of having no publicity: the lack of awareness that there is a danger in their midst.

The last woman to be raped before Montgomery police informed media of the "apologetic rapist" said she continues to wonder whether knowing that a rapist was in her area might have helped her.

She says she remains haunted by a belief that she may have seen her attacker two months before the rape. Although she was struck by his strange behavior, she did not realize that a rapist was lurking in her neighborhood and did not alert police of her suspicions.

"I think I saw him in the neighborhood near the bus stop," she said. She remembered noticing that the man did not get on the bus. Instead, he remained at the bus stop, in viewing distance of her home.

"It seemed odd at the time," she said, but she gave it little thought until the November night when a similar-looking man awakened her in her bed with a knife at her throat.

She said she is not sure what she would have done differently had she been aware that sexual assaults were occurring in her neighborhood. But she says she wishes that she had known.

"I have mixed reactions," she said of the publicity that eventually surrounded the case. "I want for him to be caught, and I don't want anything {including publicity} to stand in the way of that. But how many chances do they {police} need? Maybe it's not a bad thing driving him underground. The alternative seems that he rapes more women."

Northwest Washington residents said in interviews that police have a responsibility to warn the public.

"When they saw a pattern developing, they should have alerted reporters or at least the public," said Rebecca Kaiser, a Northwest resident, who learned of the incidents in her area after one of her neighbors was attacked.

Fulwood said police have not tried to hide information about the Northwest attacks and, in fact, make it a common practice to brief neighborhood groups informally about crime in their neighborhoods. But he concedes that it is often left up to the neighbors themselves to detect whether a pattern exists.

Despite regular meetings with police, none of the leaders with Northwest neighborhood associations interviewed was aware of the crimes currently being investigated by the police task force.

Said John Wagley, vice chairman of the Georgetown Advisory Neighborhood Commission, "Police are good about coming to meetings, but all they give are common-sense type of things. Police are reluctant to give specifics on anything . . . . I come from a side sympathetic with police, but I find it hard helping them when they don't tell me anything."

Although D.C. police rarely inform the media, residents sometimes learn of pattern sex crimes through contacts with detectives investigating the case.

Detectives began informally warning residents near Dupont Circle to secure their windows after four sexual attacks occurred in a two-block radius in December and January.

Resident Diane Bongiorni said the information helped neighbors protect themselves by banding together to make sure no women were left alone after dark. "There was panic everywhere," Bongiorni said, "but it channeled into useful outlets."

A suspect in the Dupont Circle cases was arrested by plainclothes officers this month when he matched a composite sketch.

But in another highly publicized case, the "Peeping Tom" shootings in which a gunman fired gunshots into Southeast apartments last fall, residents had no warning for weeks.

On Oct. 14, five weeks after the first Peeping Tom shooting, an off-duty police officer was shot and wounded inside her home. Within an hour, detectives at the scene said they knew of four similar incidents and that they believed that the shooting was part of that pattern.

In an interview, Fulwood said police were not certain that there was a pattern even after the officer's shooting. But by then, the media attention generated by the shooting forced police to go public before they were ready to, Fulwood said. "The media dictated that we say something," he said. "We weren't going to say anything."

On Oct. 17, two days after police issued a public statement, 26-year-old Ricky Brogsdale was arrested in the case. He has been charged with four counts of murder. Fulwood said that even after police warned residents to keep their ground-floor blinds drawn, three people were shot, one fatally.

Fulwood cites the difficulty in proving a pattern as a reason that no public statements were made on the Northwest case before Thursday.

Despite the similarities in the attacks, "We're not sure there is a pattern," he said. "It's obvious something is happening . . . . We've concentrated on an investigative strategy. Based on that, we have not warned the public."

In the meantime, Toure, of the rape crisis center, wonders if everything has been done to help the public protect itself. "How can one take preventive measures if they don't know?" she asked. "I think it could be very helpful information."