MAYOR BARRY says that the city does not need more police officers. Washington, he points out, has more sworn officers per capita than 22 of the nation's largest cities. But the District's police force is attempting to defend a high standard of public safety and order -- higher than that of many other cities -- in the midst of a drug war.

There are now some 60 locations in the District that are considered open-air drug markets. The city's chosen method of response has been Operation Clean Sweep -- blanketing sites with plainclothes and uniformed officers. To make it succeed, 200 police officers have worked overtime. The $16.4 million in overtime for D.C. police officers in 1987 was more than twice the overtime in 1986. If there are enough police officers, why was there so much overtime?

Inefficiency does not appear to have been the problem. In 1979, when there was a police force of about 4,000, the Fraternal Order of Police says there were 600,000 calls for police service. This year, with a force of 3,880, about a million calls for police service are expected.

Drug trafficking, fueled by sophisticated weaponry and competition from out-of-town drug dealers, was also much more violent in 1987. There are some 100 unsolved murders, three times the usual number. Homicide investigators have clamored for more help to solve these cases. The department's Seventh Police District -- hardest hit by the drug violence -- has asked for more officers to do its job.

To alleviate the crime problem with Mayor Barry's numbers, a massive reorganization of the police department would be required, one that might lower the level of service in some parts of the city. If 200 officers are needed on the street to temporarily shut down drug sale sites, it ought to be their regular beat. More homicide investigators are needed. From what duty and what part of the city would they come?

D.C. Council members H. R. Crawford and Wilhelmina Rolark want a slightly larger force -- about 150 more officers. It would ease the need for massive redeployment. It would cost less than one-third of the amount the department spent on overtime last year. The city doesn't need federal intervention or the National Guard, but it could use more police officers. Why not hire them?