CRIME ROSE 12 percent in the city during the past year, according to a report just issued by the police deparmtment.This increase is disturbing but not frightening. What is frightening is that it comes at a time when the police department's spirit and leadership seem uncertain. There is now more talk of black-white racial divisions in the department, more antagonism between officers and their men, and more public concern about police brutality than there has been since the late 1960s when the department was a predominantly white force trying to operate in a mostly black town. A police department having to fight its own internal problems is in a weakened position to fight crime.

Part of the current trouble seems to lie with Police Chief Burtell Jefferson's idealistic, if impractical, conception of his job. A policeman in the city for 40 years, he was chosen to be chief last year. He sees a chief's duty in clear-cut terms: to catch criminals -- and to stay as free as humanly possible of that wide and messy collection of human endeavors we call politics.Chief Jefferson appears to believe that politics in the District building, politics in the police unions and even politics on the force is, from a chief's point of view, out of bounds. But, in one sense anyway, that is wrong. Politics, in the sense of managing the environment in which the police work, is a big part of the chief's job, and unless it is undertaken, the department is likely to become less efficient in pursuing its basic police work.

These managerial responsibilities are especially important in a police department that is still assimilating blacks into what used to be white force. Frustration runs high for many police officers because there are few promotions. The hundreds of young police offers who joined the force in the early '70s, when it was expanded, have now been waiting almost 10 years for older officers to move on and new officers to be hired so they can move up in the department. The job of running such a police department requires more of a chief than concentration on actual police work. so far, however, Chief Jefferson has shown himself wary of these other aspects of the job. When internal trouble erupts in the department, as in the recent public battle in the homicide department between detectives and their director, William Trussell, he has tended to see it as a result of disloyalty, slander by the press and interference on the part of the city officials.

Chief Jefferson's grievances of course have some merit and plenty of cause. He suggests that District residents are unappreciative of their policemen. He also said recently he doesn't know if the mayor, the U.S. attorney and the public understand what it is like to be a policeman, to deal with madmen and criminals regularly, to be the only government agency on the streets 24 hours a day, subject to criticism and abuse. In this he has a point: policemen are open to an abundance of criticism -- lots of it unfair. But the remedy for that is not for the chief to assume a defensive or protective attitude, as he calls it, whenever criticism is heard or internal troubles erupt. That attitude allows small arguments within the force to turn into major disputes.

To help with his task of keeping the department calm and out of trouble, the chief may need to take on some high-level assistants keyed into the political issues he must deal with. Such a move could strengthen the chief's relations with the mayor, the unions and the men within the department. It could also help Chief Jefferson succeed at his priority police work. Without help on the political front, the chief may find that his department is no longer able to do what he and the city's residents want to do: control that climbing crime rate.