Melonie Dearborn grabbed her 5-year-old son's small hand and told him to hurry.

The Dearborn family raced through the University of the District of Columbia's Van Ness Campus to the auditorium just as the warbling bagpipes started to pierce the silence and a row of people began to walk into the room.

The boy's father was about to graduate and become a D.C. police officer.

Along with 22 recruits, Oris Dearborn graduated Friday morning, joining the District's 3,507-member police department. The day was a happy one for the officers and their families. But it was also significant for the police department, which has struggled with people leaving the force faster than the department can replace them. Nearly 20 officers leave the force each month as a result of retirements, resignations and firings. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has said the department has been behind in hiring.

But with a recent recruitment fair at the Washington Convention Center and the approval of the lateral transfers of officers from other cities, the number of police hires is increasing, said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.

"It's getting better," said Gainer, who attended the graduation. "We are being aggressive about the lateral transfer program."

That program will allow about 100 experienced officers to take a two-month course, rather than the seven-month training period that the most recent class went through. In December, 30 officers are scheduled to take the two-month course.

Lateral transfers are a common practice in large police departments across the country and they sometimes net good results, said Tony Narr, director of management education at the Police Executive Research Forum, a District-based national membership association of police chiefs. But the department should be careful, Narr said.

"The downside is you have to look at why that officer is leaving that other department," Narr said. "You also have to look at if the training is the same, and make sure that it doesn't leave out things that are needed here."

The number of openings in the police force is among the highest in recent years. The department now has 93 openings, Gainer said. Within the next two years, the department has a budget that allows for the hiring of an additional 200 officers, he said. That's aside from replacing officers who retire or resign.

The department hired 1,500 recruits in 1989 and 1990 but cut corners on background checks and rushed recruits through training to get them on the force. Some of those officers later committed crimes.

Officials have said those mistakes won't be made again, but they stressed how important hiring is to the community.

The shortage of officers assigned to the 83 patrol service areas--the basis of the department's community policing strategy--is an issue for residents who are upset that they don't see officers patroling their neighborhoods. At graduation last week, Ramsey told the newest recruits they are part of the "journey to make D.C. the safest community in America."

He said community policing will also be improved by using the department's new $50 million technology effort, including new software, training and a computer-aided dispatch system to help the much-criticized 911 emergency system.

"In my day technology meant . . . large quantities of white-out [correction fluid]," Ramsey told the graduates. "You will now have technology at your fingertips. You as police officers make the difference that few people can."

There is one more class of 25 recruits scheduled to graduate in December, Gainer said. This year, about 97 officers graduated from the academy.

The new recruits started their jobs right away. There were only two women, but the class was ethnically diverse, with members' backgrounds ranging from Chinese to Peruvian. D. Melissa Bracey, one of the two women graduates, said she is a triple minority.

"I'm a woman. I'm black," said Bracey, who is a Southeast resident. "And I'm short--4-foot-11. It doesn't matter, it's important to have all kinds in the department."

She said she attended Virginia State University and eventually wants to study law. Being a police officer will give her a good understanding of the criminal justice system and give her a chance to give back to the city she grew up in, Bracey said. Others like Oris Dearborn said they were former officers elsewhere--he was a U.S. Air force police officer--but wanted to live in the D.C. area.

"It's a great opportunity to be an officer here," he said.

CAPTION: New police recruits take the oath of a police officer at graduation from the University of the District of Columbia.

CAPTION: At left, new police Officer Oris Dearborn stands with his wife, Melonie, and sons, from left, Daniel, 7, and Evan, 5.

CAPTION: Officers D. Melissa Bracey, left, and Nicole R. Greene are the only female police recruits in the graduating class of 23 officers.