A D.C. policeman trying to arrest a drug suspect near 14th and u streets N.W. was shot in the head and wounded critically last night, setting in motion feverish attempts to save his life as a massive manhunt began for his assailant.

While 3rd District officer Arthur P. Snyder, barely alive, was being flown by helicopter to a hospital, dozens of grim-faced detectives and uniformed officers began combing the area around the intersection, where the shooting occurred about 6:45 p.m.

Snyder's partner on a special autidrug detail fired six shots at the assailant, apparently wounding him, and tracking dogs were put on the scent of a trail of blood that may have been left by the fugitive.

The sudden flurry of gunfire began a night of drama, anguish and desperate effort in which a Howard University student attempted to resuscitate the fallen officer on the freezing pavement, police searched hospitals for the possibly wounded suspect and officers stopped and questioned people on the street for blocks around.

Early this morning, following scores of interviews, police said they were seeking a 27-year-old Northwest Washington man in connection with the shooting. They began circulating flyers with his picture and by 1 a.m. they had searched three houses in a vain attempt to seize him.

Meanwhile, top officials gathered at The Washington Hosptial Center where Father R. Joseph Dooley, the department's Catholic chaplain, tried to comfort the officier's grieving wife, Stella, while life-supporting machinery kept him alive and doctors prepared a brain scan to evaluate the extend of his wound.

Snyder, 29, and Constant Pickett, both seasoned street veterans, were on patrol as part of a 3rd District unit assigned to suppress the drug traffic near 14th and U streets, long a thriving market for narcotics transactions.

Known on the force for their ability to observe drug traffickers undetected and then take them by surprise, the two officiers watched with binoculars from a hiding place in the 2000 block of 14th Street, as a man appeared to make three drug sales.

The officers worked out a plan. Pickett was to walk down the block from the V Street end. Snyder was to come up from U Street. They expected to trap the man between them.

But something went wrong. Snyder, who had a reputation for zeal and aggressiveness, got there first, alone. Three or four shots rang out.

Hearing them, Pickett hurried to the scene and saw his partner lying on the sidewalk, bleeding, with the drug suspect standing over him. Pickett fired four shots from his service revolver. The man fired two shots at Pickett, then ran.

Uninjured, Pickett reached his partner and took his gun so that he would have a fully loaded weapon. Firing two shots from Snyder's gun, Pickett chased the fleeing fugitive until he vanished into the darkness.

Almost immediately, Thomas Smith, 23, a Howard University student who ras riding in a patrol car in the area as part of an educational program, raced to the fallen officer.

Snyder had been shot once in the head and once in the lower abdomen, below a bullet-resistant vesh he wore. Smith began administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation -- CPR.

For the first few minutes, Thomas could get no response. Snyder had no pulse. He could not breathe unaided. After a few minutes a faint pulse began, then died.

Police officers and rescue personnel arrived and took over. A Park Police helicopter landed on a patch of open ground nearby and took Snyder to the Washington Hospital Center, where the call went out for a brain surgeon. t

Meanwhile, officers filled the area around the scene of the shooting -- homicide detectives, Snyder's fellow 3rd district officers and volunteers from the Park Police.

"I want this put out on the streets," said Officer Clarence J. Thomas, addressing a knot of bystanders at 14th and U. "I want you to go and rap to the people and find out who did it," he said. "Do it for me."

Officers moved from house to house alone cordoned-off streets, while the dog teams -- Park Police officer J. T. Bartlett with "Bosco" and D.C. police officer James L. Tarantella with "Blackie," prowled for the suspect's scent.

The suspect, identified as Bruce Wazon Griffith, was charged early today in a warrant with assault on a police officer with intent to kill.

Police said Griffith, who had once lived near North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue NW, was likely to be armed and should be considered damgerous.

In addition to being wanted on an earlier Superior Court warrant on a charge of selling heroin, Griffith is being sought on a warrant issued in Hackensack, N.J., also alleging a drug violation.

"We'll have him" [the suspect], said Deputy Police Chief Alfonso D. Gibson, commanding officer of the 3rd Police District.

Gibson called Snyder "a damned good policeman . . . always on the street and giving testimony against suspects) in court."

Fellow officers in the 3rd District, visibly upset and angered by the shooting, voiced the same high opinion of Snyder.

Calling Snyder a "good officer," Officer D.C. Jackson described him as fair and impartial, a man who "arrested anyone who was doing something wrong."

Charley Williams, a former partner, said Snyder, a 4 1/2-year veteran of the force, had begun working in September on a special crime prevention patrol, in which uniformed officers walked foot beats to combat drug traffic.

He and Snyder, an enthusiastic outdoorsman, often hunted together in off-duty hours, for deer and small game in southern Maryland.