Charles E. Samarra, a 23-year veteran of the D.C. police force who rose from patrol officer to assistant chief for investigations, may be the only high-ranking police officer in the District with a plaque from union officials hanging on his office wall.

The plaque commends Samarra for his leadership in working with the department's rank and file -- no small achievement, according to Gary Hankins, head of the city's police union.

Samarra's administrative skills will undergo a new test this summer when he takes the helm of the Alexandria Police Department, which has had its share of labor-management problems in recent years.

Officials said Samarra, Alexandria's third police chief in as many years, will need every ounce of savvy and experience he can muster not only to mend fences with his department's two police unions, but also to deal with Alexandria's strong-willed city manager and a growing street drug problem.

"I commend anyone for even having applied for the job," said John Young, president of the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations.

Samarra not only applied, he applied twice (he was a finalist in 1988 when Gary L. Leonard was chosen for the top job), and he has wasted no time in tackling the new challenge.

Before accepting the job, Samarra arranged to have dinner with City Manager Vola Lawson and city police union leaders Barry Schiftic and Jamie Bartlett.

"If they {Schiftic and Bartlett} were going to fight me, I couldn't do my job," said Samarra, 44, who said he promised the two men he would seek their input and include their representatives in his staff meetings.

"I'm a poor loser. If I thought I was going to be a loser, then I wouldn't have come," Samarra said.

The past six years have been uneasy for Alexandria's police force, which has been riddled at times with low morale, pay disputes and allegations of wrongdoing by high-ranking officials.

Leonard, initially touted as "an officer's officer," resigned in March, two years after he took the job and only two days after Schiftic's and Bartlett's unions voted no confidence in his leadership. At the time, reports were circulating of differences between Leonard and Lawson over her supposed hands-on management style.

Described by peers and subordinates alike as intelligent, low-key, assertive and demanding, Samarra is confident his leadership and experience are "what Alexandria needs."

In the past, he said, mistakes were made in Alexandria "that Charlie Samarra won't make." There are "good cops and bad cops. I happen to be one of D.C.'s best cops."

Samarra grew up in a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh, the son of a glass worker and a secretary who knew, from the time he "could barely walk," that he wanted to be a police officer. Three years after his father mortgaged the family home so that Samarra could attend college in Rochester, N.Y., Samarra saw an ad in a local paper for D.C. police recruits. He packed his bags.

Samarra, who received an undergraduate degree in police administration from American University, joined the District force in 1967, initially working some of the most crime-ridden sections of the 7th District. He quickly began rising through the ranks, commanding the department's internal affairs division and the city's homicide branch.

From 1980 to 1985 he headed the planning and development division, before being promoted to deputy chief. Last year he was promoted again, to assistant chief responsible for the 500-member investigative services bureau, which includes six divisions.

Elijah "Sonny" Wade, 47, a former D.C. police officer who helped break in Samarra as a rookie, said, "Charlie knew that he wasn't ever going to be chief" in a majority-black city with a majority-black police force, so it became time to move on.

"I'm not looking to make Alexandria a steppingstone," said Samarra, who lives in Charles County with his wife and 7-year-old son.

Samarra said his first priority as chief will be building trust between the department's 255 officers and management personnel. He has already begun meeting with each man and woman on his force.

"Knowing the problems that they have in Alexandria, Charlie will be an asset," said Richmond Police Chief Marty Tapscott, a former D.C. assistant chief for administrative affairs. "He believes in officer {involvement} in decision-making . . . but he will stomp on people if he has to."

Lt. Lowell Duckett, president of the District's Black Police Caucus, said that "if presented with the opportunity to deal with a problem of discrimination, he will deal with it." But Ron Hampton, who heads the District's Afro-American Police Officers Association, said that his group had been disappointed that Samarra had not been vocal in supporting minority rights. Samarra "is no champion of people's rights. I don't think that Alexandria's {31} black officers have anything to look forward to," Hampton said.

Informed of Hampton's comment, Samarra bristled, saying he had "never met the man." Equal opportunity is of "utmost importance to me," Samarra said, citing his record on hiring and promoting minorities and women. "I started an all-female SWAT team to show that women could perform the same as men in those situations; it's probably the only such unit in the country," he said.

Hankins recalled that in 1985, when Samarra took over the special operations division, it led the department in the number of arbitrated grievances, but by the time he left the division, such disputes had virtually disappeared. Other managers began to emulate him. Samarra said he was criticized for his unprecedented action of including union representatives in his staff meetings but that "it was my command and I felt could do what I wanted."

Some Alexandria officials wonder how such independence will play with Lawson, who has been accused of interfering in police affairs, while some of Samarra's colleagues wonder how he will react to any "hands-on management."

"It would cause him to have to drastically change his approach," said Rodwell Catoe, a deputy chief in the District. "It remains to be seen whether he can adjust. I think he can."

For her part, Lawson has said that she is not excessively involved in police affairs and that she assists only when necessary. According to some city staff, she got involved with Leonard's administration only after the police department went "several thousand dollars over budget" last year and after problems developed with the city's relatively new police radio system and computers.

Samarra said last week that he plans to add civilians to his staff to handle budgetary and computer matters, and that he had spoken with several Alexandria officers who told him that "Vola did what she had to do."

"I don't see her interfering {with me} unless I make some grievous error, and I don't plan to," he said.