MUCH IS LIKELY to be read into the departure of Alexandria's police chief and the removal of a veteran lieutenant from command of the vice and narcotics unit -- given the uproar that haunted this department and undermined longstanding relationships between top city officials a few years ago. While those events focused on Chief Charles T. Strobel, they stemmed from allegations that eventually were found to be without substance. The chief was cleared of charges of wrongdoing. And though there is clearly no love lost between Chief Strobel and City Manager Vola Lawson, the departure of the chief now appears to have nothing to do with any undertones of criminal activity. That is an important distinction.

Chief Strobel's departure, and the agreements reached to move it up from December to now, put to an end what had become an unworkable arrangement. Communications between the chief and his superior, the city manager, had broken down almost entirely. This meant that important management functions were not being carried out, including prompt responses to allegations made about the operations of the police department. One such report centered on activities in the vice and narcotics unit, which is what has prompted the placing of Lt. Arthur L. Bratcher on paid leave while he decides whether to accept a transfer to the patrol division.

As one source put it yesterday, "This is more a result of what hasn't been done than what has. Charlie has been on 'automatic pilot' since he was cleared of those charges before. Things just weren't getting done."

Whatever the specifics, it sounds like a good thing that this action was taken now, rather than going on to December with an unworkable situation and a chief who needs to be replaced and is scheduled to be replaced. It is the responsibility of a city manager to administer, and the changes just made should make that administrating easier than it has been for some time.