During the latter part of 1980 and the early part of 1981, violent crime in the United States "exploded," and one criminal justice expert went so far as to predict that, within four or five years, every household in the country would be victimized at least once.

For those of us old enough to remember back that far, the situation was somewhat reminiscent of the days of John Dillinger, "Baby Face" Nelson and "Pretty Boy" Floyd, with one major exception. Whereas the criminals of the '30s had confined their activities to banks and other financial institutions, today everyone is a potential victim.

Faced with 13 million major crimes a year, at the rate of one every two seconds, Americans developed a siege mentality, investing large sums of money in firearms, tear-gas dispensers, burglar alarms, dead-bolt locks and "vandal panels" for their windows.

Then, miraculously, the tide turned. In Prince George's County, where the first three months of 1981 showed major crimes running 13 percent ahead of 1980's record figure, violence began to taper off, and our overall increase plummeted to approximately 3 percent by the end of October.

No one can say for sure what brought about the change, but I attribute it to a number of factors: increased crime-prevention efforts by our officers and the community, the use of stake-out teams in high-crime-rate areas, intensified patrols, the passage of strict state legislation dealing with the sale of precious metals, and the bottoming out of the gold and silver markets.

For longer-lasting relief, however, we are going to have to open up our pocketbooks and build more and better prisons.

Countless studies have shown that most crimes are committed by a hard- core group of recidivists, and the only way we can protect ourselves from them is to put them out of circulation for the terms prescribed by law. Probably they will not be rehabilitated--research conducted by James Q. Wilson, a professor at Harvard University, shows that they undoubtedly won't be--but at least the law-abiding citizens will be safe while the rapists, robbers, muggers and burglars are removed from society.

As it is now, prison overcrowding throughout the country is so atrocious that prosecutors prefer to plea-bargain rather than go to trial, juries show a reluctance to convict nonviolent offenders, judges opt for granting probation instead of cell time, and parole boards close their eyes in releasing offenders they "hope" will not resume their lives of crime.

In the meantime, I think local law enforcement is doing an outstanding job under very adverse conditions. Particularly, having come into the Prince George's Police Department after spending 27 years as an FBI agent, I have been impressed by what I have seen.

The department is sophisticated in every sense of the word. It was the first agency in the state of Maryland to adopt computer-aided dispatch, it was the fourth in the world to install a fully automated fingerprint system (in conjunction with the Montgomery County Police Department), and it has an extremely high level of education. More than 22 percent of our officers have four-year college degrees (compared with 7 percent in New York City and 3 percent in Philadelphia), and eight of the officers on my command staff have master's degrees.

Furthermore, a recent citizen survey showed that 85 percent of the residents of Prince George's County rated the work of the department as either good or excellent, and I am proud to note that we have one of the lowest brutality-complaint rates in the entire Washington metropolitan area.

Even so, we know that this is no time to rest on our laurels. The county executive and the county council have increased our complement from 838 officers to 894, and it is essential that we use this added strength to reduce our response time, to expand our crime-prevention efforts (after all, it is a lot easier to prevent a crime than it is to solve one), to institute walking patrols in selected areas, to beef up our investigative units, and to expand our stake-out squads.

As was also indicated last month, we are now concentrating on removing drunken drivers from the road, so that the highways will become safer for everyone in the county.

Unfortunately, none of this will be accomplished overnight, but I am confident that we can make our efforts felt, and I sincerely hope that the community will do everything possible to help. After all, there are fewer than 900 of us; there are more than 660,000 of you.