THE DEMISE of Operation Clean Sweep, the D.C. police program that put 200 officers on overtime to crack down on blatant drug trafficking, highlights a more fundamental problem. Simply put, the police force is too small to do everything that is needed to curtail the city's growing and increasingly violent drug trade. During the Nixon administration, the number of D.C. police officers rose from 2,958 in 1968 to 5,070 in 1972. That was in response to rioting and inordinately high crime rates. Since then, however, the number of city police officers has shrunk to an authorized strength of 3,880.

But additional drug cases require additional officers. To make a drug deal arrest, for example, plainclothes officers are needed to make the buy. Additional officers act as observers, and others make the actual arrest. Still more have marked the money used in the transaction and collect the drugs seized. Programs such as Clean Sweep required putting police officers on overtime at a cost of $5.6 million. First, city officials cut the program back to 100 officers. Clean Sweep was ended altogether in December.

District Councilwoman Wilhelmina Rolark says that the District needs more police officers instead -- about 150 -- to allow programs such as Clean Sweep to continue. She's right. The District's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, however, says that 500 additional officers are needed. Prince George's County police have faced the same situation -- a record number of homicides and shootings fueled by drug turf battles. That's why Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening wants to add up to 100 more police officers.

In the District, there have already been 24 murders this year, three times the number recorded by this date in 1987. D.C. police have confiscated 178 firearms so far this year. Most of them were sophisticated automatic or semi-automatic weapons, many connected with out-of-town drug dealers attempting to establish a foothold here in Washington. Clean Sweep gave frightened city residents a chance to see that drug dealers could be hit hard and kept on the run. Residents then summoned the courage to report more drug crimes, and that must continue. Establishing a greater police presence by hiring additional police officers has never been more important.