ATTORNEY GENERAL BELL'S decision to conduct a full scale review of the organization and operations of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration is well founded. LEAA has been the target of heavy criticism almost from the day it was created in 1968. Some of the criticism is justified and some is not. But the time has come for a careful study of where LEAA is going.

LEAA was created out of a sense of despair over the rising crime rate and in the hope that throwing federal dollars at law enforcement would somehow bring the crime problem under control. A good many dollars have been thrown - about $6 billion - although that is just a drop compared to what state and local governments spent in the same period. And not all of them were aimed well. In its early years, LEAA spent far too much of its resources on police forces, particularly on equipping them. More recently, it has spread itself too thin; it has more than 50,000 programs under way and sometimes gives the impression of being out of administrative control. Add to that the politicking and log-rolling that inevitably accompany a half-billion-dollars-a-year grant budget and it is easy to understand why Mr. Bell wants a thorough review.

Despite its problems, LEAA has had considerable success. Its existence has forced states to start coordinating their law enforcement programs and has forced politicians to deal in the realities, rather than the rhetoric, of crime control. It has financed many programs that would not otherwise have gotten off the planning boards. And a majority of its projects have proved their worth to local officials who have continued them after federal money ran out.

At the root of many of LEAA's problems is federalism. Law enforcement and crime control are local problems, and the federal government has no direct role in the way they are handled. Thus, there is a strong argument that any federal money used to bolster these activities should go to the states without stringattached. Yet the purpose of LEAA is to stimulate new approaches and to foster better programs. To do that, strings need to be attached if only to stop local government from substituting federal funds for locally raised funds to pay for the same old programs. And, as LEAA has grown older, more and more strings have been attached to the money it hands out, thus complicating administration and creating bureaucratic snarls.

That is one of the problems to which the Attorney General's study group should direct itself. Have state and local governments become sufficiently sophisticated now about crime control problems to use federal funds wisely with much less federal supervision? There are others. Is there a better way than LEAA has devised to channel money to promising projects? Is the country getting its money's worth out of the $750 million LEAA spends annually? And, above all, is there still a need for federal support of programs that are so totally local in nature? These questions deserve the kind of thorough inquiry the Attorney General has ordered.