COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Trevor A. Hampton remembers vividly the night in 1969 when he watched his college campus explode.

It was May 23. Police and students at predominantly black North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro rained gunfire on each other, killing one person and wounding eight. Hampton, then a recent A&T alumnus, remembers dodging bullets outside the dormitory where he had lived. He also remembers that he did not shoot back.

Hampton was a rookie cop in the Greensboro Police Department.

"It was a tremendous social strain to go through that experience," said Hampton, who last week was named chief of the beleagured Alexandria Police Department. "Many officers resigned in the period after that situation.

"I never considered it. I felt minority officers needed to stay. It made me feel more strongly that I had a positive role to play."

In the 20 years since Hampton first donned a police uniform, friends and coworkers said last week, he has played that role to the hilt. He studied relentlessly, rose with lightning speed through the ranks in Greensboro and, in 1984, moved to Columbia, S.C., as deputy police chief. He was variously described as "highly capable," "bull-headed," "intelligent," "very confident" and someone "who would give you his opinion whether you wanted it or not."

From the start, friends say, Hampton set his sights on becoming a police chief and never wavered from his goal. And if their predictions are right, Hampton will arrive in Alexandria on March 1 with a stern message for the city's troubled department: If it's not the best, it's not good enough.

"Hamp is not going to take a lot of time before he gets his program going," said Greensboro Police Chief Sylvester Daughtry Jr. "He loves challenges. And he won't settle for second rate."

W.L. (Bill) Smith, a former Greensboro homicide detective who is now head of security at Benedict College in Columbia, laughed when he advised: "Tell everybody they better get ready to dot their i's and cross their t's. And if they're not working, they better get ready. He will accept nothing but the best."

In his Columbia office last week, Hampton offered a glimpse of his plans for the Alexandria department, which for four years has been wracked by charges of wrongdoing, mismanagement and cronyism. Charles T. Strobel, the city's previous police chief, became Alexandria's dominant political issue in 1985 and retired under pressure in September after an internal investigation found "significant failure of top management" in the department.

Hampton's quiet manner -- he smokes a pipe and speaks in even, calculated, unemotional sentences -- is that of a velvet-glove administrator. But his words and his demeanor suggest that the glove sheathes an iron fist. Emblazoned on his coffee cup are a cartoon of a buzzard staring at a hangman's noose and the inscription, "To err is human. To forgive is not department policy."

"The credibility of the department is something I'm very concerned about," said Hampton, who will be Alexandria's first black police chief. "I want the community to be certain we can carry out our responsibilities.

"The resources are there {in Alexandria}. The raw material is there. I want to make sure that strong leadership is provided and that achievement occurs. I'm going to hold our managers responsible for creating a positive environment. I want there to be clear accountability for performance."

"During my time as a sergeant I realized the impact that supervisors can have on operations," he said. "I realized that even a junior officer can make a difference. I enjoyed that."

According to friends, Hampton, 41, has been striving to make a difference since he discovered police work in 1968. A native of Philadelphia, he went to Greensboro when his mother, a schoolteacher, insisted that he attend college and he picked A&T. Bored, Hampton dropped out after two years. He said he worked at a succession of jobs until joining the Greensboro Police Department "without really knowing what the job was about."

He quickly realized he had stumbled on a career. "When my family went on summer vacation, I sat on the beach reading police administration books," Hampton said. He received his college degree after taking night courses, and he made sergeant in less than three years and captain five years later. He oversaw the department's training programs, headed community relations and commanded a patrol division for four years.

And along the way he developed a knack for helping others succeed with him. Today, he points to "the development of people" as his proudest accomplishment.

"I had been in the department about six years when {Hampton} called me and told me it was time I started to advance," said Greensboro Police Sgt. Julian K. Davis. "He told me that if I would transfer to his division he would guarantee me a promotion in six months. I said, 'Where do I sign?'

"He got me to take the sergeant's test, and after I passed he drilled me on preparation for the orals. At that time it was just unheard of for someone with {officer's} bars on his shoulders to call you and tell you, 'Here's what you do to succeed.' If I'm going to be a captain, I want to be like him."

Smith, the former Greensboro detective, said Hampton encouraged him to enroll in college and recommended him for the job he currently holds in Columbia. "He's self-motivated, and he's always motivated others," Smith said. "He's an administrator in the best sense."

Hampton has not been universally successful or popular. In Greensboro, he was in charge of a section of the city where a 1979 shootout at a rally involving several dozen Ku Klux Klansmen, Nazis and Communists left five people dead.

When the shooting occurred, Hampton was not at work. Although it happened on a weekend when he was usually off, his absence prompted mild criticism. But Hampton was not disciplined, police officials said, and the incident did not hurt his career in Greensboro.

"The question was, what was the level of this guy's preparedness?" said Elizabeth Wheaton of Greensboro, author of a book on the 1979 incident. "But there were so many errors that day that I don't know whether his presence would have made any difference."

In Columbia, Hampton will leave a legacy of administrative achievements and some resentment. When he was hired in 1984, he was only the second high-ranking official to be hired from outside the department. (The first was a former Columbia chief, who was later convicted of a taking a bribe and was fired.)

As deputy chief in charge of personnel and support services, Hampton revised the department's handbook of basic police procedures, instituted new hiring and promotion standards, reallocated officers from administrative duty to patrol and beefed up training. But many officers who came up through the ranks never warmed to him.

"He was ostracized to a certain degree," said Columbia Police Lt. Wiley Davis, who praised Hampton. "When you have a good-old-boy system, the good old boys will circle the wagons on you. And that's what happened."

Columbia Police Chief Robert Wilbur declined to answer questions about Hampton.

Hampton said that "it is a natural reaction for some officers" to oppose promotions from outside the ranks and that he considers his tenure in Columbia a success. "By and large, people in this department have reacted positively to guidance and change," he said.

He predicted a smooth transition in Alexandria. "I've learned that resistance to change can be minimized by giving subordinates an opportunity for input," Hampton said. "The people who work with me know I encourage input. They don't have to agree with me."