The District's police department does not have the authority to investigate complaints that its officers have used excessive force, according to an arbitration ruling in the case of three officers accused of stuffing a drug suspect into the trunk of a police car.

One of the three officers involved in the incident, Andrew Solberg, won the arbitration ruling, which threw out charges of excessive force that could have led to his suspension from the police force.

Lt. Reginald Smith, the department's spokesman, said the ruling illustrates the problem the department has faced since the Civilian Complaint Review Board was established almost 10 years ago to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

"This was a serious allegation {of misconduct by officers}, one with criminal overtones, and we felt strongly that we should be able to investigate it just as we would if the allegations had been against a civilian," Smith said.

Gary Hankins, leader of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the arbitration ruling is important because it means the police department must stand aside while the civilian board investigates complaints of excessive force by officers.

The arbitrator, Seymour Strongin, said in his ruling that the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board has exclusive jurisdiction over allegations of non-criminal excessive force by police officers.

Normally, arbitration decisions are final, but the police department has asked the city's Public Employee's Relations Board to review the ruling. If Strongin's decision is upheld, it would have the effect of transferring the case back to the civilian board.

Solberg and the other officers, Tommy Barnes and Yurell Washington, are still on administrative leave, and the civilian board is planning a hearing in the case, according to the board's executive director, Alfreda Davis Porter.

Robert Deso, an attorney for Solberg, said the arbitrator correctly dismissed the police department's action against the officers. Deso said the police department initially referred the case to the civilian board.

Solberg declined to comment yesterday. Barnes and Washington could not be reached.

Police officials agree that the civilian board has the power to investigate such complaints, but they say the department retains the ability to bring administrative charges against officers for other violations of police regulations. The police department argued vigorously during the arbitration hearing that it had authority to conduct its investigation of the incident at the same time the civilian board's probe was pending.

The case against the three officers began on July 13, 1989, when Patrick Wells, 19, was arrested on a Northwest Washington playground and charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Wells said the arresting officers tried to get him to tell them that he had been with a group of youths they had just arrested.

In an interview several days later, Wells told The Washington Post that one of the officers told him, "It ain't far to 3-D {the 3rd District police headquarters}. We'll just put you in the trunk. It ain't but six blocks away."

Wells said the officers made him lie face down, wearing handcuffs, on top of a spare tire in the trunk. He said he spent about 20 minutes in the trunk while the officers drove around.

The charges against Wells were dismissed two months later.

Meanwhile, the police department opened a criminal investigation against the three officers and recommended that the U.S. Attorney's Office seek criminal charges against them. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to prosecute.

The police department notified the officers in September that it planned to issue suspensions because of the incident, and Solberg took the case to arbitration.

The District is unusual among major cities in that it gives a civilian board power to review actions of police officers and recommend punishment. The 1981 law that established the civilian board has been controversial since its adoption; both the police union and the police administration have called for its repeal.