Trevor A. Hampton's sudden decision to withdraw as Alexandria police chief a week after he took the job will make finding a new leader for the troubled department even harder and lower its already sagging morale, city officials said yesterday.

Alexandria officials also criticized Hampton for pursuing the chief's job in Durham, N.C., after telling them he had dropped out of the race. Mayor James P. Moran Jr. called Hampton's dealings with the city "unethical" and "a hot poker in the eye" of the police department.

Hampton, 41, deputy police chief in Columbia, S.C., signed an agreement to take the Alexandria job Jan. 20 and announced his decision at a news conference at City Hall. But yesterday he began a two-day round of interviews for the Durham job, saying that his wife, a South Carolina native, did not want to move to a "densely populated area" like Alexandria.

Hampton did not tell Alexandria officials that he was participating in the Durham interviews, and withdrew from the Alexandria post late Tuesday night after City Manager Vola Lawson contacted him by phone at a Durham hotel.

"I'd like to say that everything's rosy, but this has done damage," City Council member Carlyle C. (Connie) Ring Jr. said yesterday. "We have been suffering under the strain of years of uncertainty in the police department. The morale there is already low, and this is going to affect it further.

"And it's going to be tougher going out and looking {for a chief} again. People like to feel they were your first choice."

Lawson and Assistant City Manager Michelle Evans said that until Tuesday the only concern about the job that Hampton and his wife expressed was the Washington area's high cost of living. Evans said that had Hampton come to Alexandria his pay would have gone up almost 50 percent -- from about $43,000 a year to $65,400 -- and that city officials had already made efforts to secure a job for Hampton's wife.

"We will be very careful" to ensure that family considerations are fully explored with the next candidate, Evans said.

Hampton's change of heart is the latest in a series of struggles for the Alexandria Police Department that date to 1984. Most involved former chief Charles T. Strobel, who retired under pressure in September after a city review found "significant failure of top management" in the department.

The search for a replacement for Strobel has failed twice. When the job was initially advertised, Lawson expressed disappointment that she received fewer than 30 applications; in October, when two top contenders dropped out, she relaxed the job requirements and started from scratch.

This time more than 100 people applied, but Hampton shocked city officials Tuesday by changing his mind.

"I'm not saying this hasn't happened before, but it hasn't happened in my experience," said Terry Eisenberg, a law enforcement personnel consultant who helped guide the Alexandria search.

Lawson sounded upbeat about the city's prospects for finding a new police chief, stressing that Hampton had cited only his wife's concerns about the area when he withdrew. "He indicated that if it were his personal decision he would still be coming here," Lawson said.

But Ring said, "I have the perception that the reputation Alexandria has developed in police circles has made the recruitment process much more difficult."

Lawson said that "if all goes well" the city could have a chief in place by early April, only a month after Hampton was scheduled to officially take over. She said her staff will review the top 38 applicants who responded to the previous recruiting effort.

"I still think that the selection process {that produced Hampton} was excellent," Lawson said. "Our staff did an outstanding job."

In Durham, a city whose population and police force are about the same size as Alexandria's, one City Council member has publicly said that he would like the next police chief to be black. Last year a city report found a "racial and sexual harassment problem" in the police department that it attributed to "ineffective leadership."

Hampton is the only one of six finalists for the Durham job who is black. Among the outside officials who are helping Durham City Manager Orville Powell make the selection are two people who previously served with Hampton in the Greensboro (N.C.) Police Department: Sylvester Daughtry Jr., the Greensboro police chief and a college friend of Hampton's, and Johnny Faircloth, police chief of High Point, N.C.