THE NEWS from the police is not good: The city department's record-keepers report that serious crime in the District of Columbia increased 23 percent during the first quarter of this year over the same period of 1978. That's the sharpest rise in four years, and even though other cities are experiencing similar increases, it should not be dismissed. The increase is open to various explanations, many of which have been offered by an understandably concerned Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson.

First, it helps to look at what is included in the serious-crime category and how these crimes relate to citizen fear. Many of the increases were in crimes of a nonviolent nature. Among the crimes against property, burglaries were up 31 percent, to 3,429; larcenies were up 22 percent, to 6,740; auto thefts were up 23 percent, to 868. Homicides - which tend to be cases involving families and acquaintances - increased 35 percent, to a total of 50. Reported rapes increased 47 percent, to 87, and reported robberies were up 18 percent, to 1,833.

Chief Jefferson hastens to note that after he "laid down the law" to field officers last month, the rate of increase for the month of April dropped. That sounds good, though you have to ask in such instances just how airtight and scientific the reporting processes are, and whether chiefs just get what they order.

Still, Chief Jefferson points to some specific events as perhaps contributing to the earlier increase, including the farmers' demonstration on the Mall in February and the teachers' strike in March, each of which took hundreds of officers away from street patrols. (But we also remember a few snowy days in which crime took a dip during this period.) The chief also blames unemployment, which affects city teen-agers most severely; and police experts believe that reductions in the supplies of narcotics meant weaker materials and more robberies and burglaries to support more purchases.

Though it won't help any local victims of violent crimes here, the troubles aren't limited to Washington; other cities are experiencing similar increases. In Baltimore, for example, city police have reported a 21.4 percent increase in serious crimes for the same three months. Among crime rates for the 26 largest cities in the country, Washington's ranked well down the list, 18th, in 1978. The difficulty anywhere is in stopping the crimes, which even the best police department cannot guarantee. But Chief Jefferson's efforts to recruit, train and keep more top-flight officers - if coupled with citizens' help in reporting crimes and providing other useful information - will be important in combating this new tide.