THOSE WHO WATCH television news regularly got a glimpse in recent days of what a police search is really like. It was not pretty. The pictures of deputy sheriffs working their way systematically through the files, desks and library of station KBCI-TV in Boise showed the disruption that accompanies any search. It is difficult to imagine how to a television station -- or, for that matter, a newspaper, any other business or a private home -- can function either while officers are rummaging around or for some considerable time after they leave.

This particular search was the result of a prosecutor's desire to get his hands on all the film exposed by KBCI-TV employees during a recent prison riot. His desire to see and possibly use the film as evidence in criminal proceedings goes to the right of reporters to shield confidential sources and also raises questions concerning forcible search.

There was a less violent way in which the prosecutor could have proceeded. He could have obtained a court order -- a subpoena -- directin the station to hand over the film. That would have avoided the disruption and the unpleasantness of the search. But it would have been much less efficient form the prosecutor's viewpoint: it would have taken time, and he might not have gotten the tapes. In the subpoena process, the station would have had a chance to argue in court that the prosecutor has no legal right to see those tapes. As it is, that argument can now be made only after he has seen them -- and after his deputies have had an opportunity to see whatever else may have been in those desks and files.

Perhaps this incident will nudge Congress into doing what it should have done long ago: pass the bill making subpoenas the rule and searchers the exception when prosecutors or police want evidence that is held by innocent persons.

Search warrants and searches are the ordinary business of police and prosecutors. This particular search, most of them can tell you, was conducted with some restraint. But searches are not ordinary business for law-abiding citizens. They disrupt an individual's privacy about as much as anything the government can do, and they carry an implication that the individuals being searched have themselves done or are about to do something wrong.

Such intrusions into personal privacy ought to occur only when they are essential to the successful prosecution of criminals. Congress can limit them to that role by requiring that the subpoena method be used first when innocent people are involved unless there is strong reason to believe it will be ineffective.