D.C. police promotion procedures were openly criticized by rank-and-file officers for the second time in as many years when 12 officers this week asked the D.C. Superior Court to bar any promotions based on the department's newest and controversial civil service exams.

The 12 officers had all qualified for promotions to sergeant on the 1978 exam, and were at the top of the list when Mayor Marion Barry imposed a citywide hiring and promotion freeze March 1.

A new exam was subsequently given using different procedures, and the 12 officers and many others eneded lower on the new list. As a result, many who were next-in-line based on the 1978 list may now have to wait much longer for promotions -- if they are promoted at all.

"All we're asking for is what's fair and equitable," said Lowell K. Duckett, a 12-year police veteran who was highest on the list when the freeze took effect.

Duckett scored lower in the 1980 examination, and says he must now wait two years to try for the sergeant's job again. "I've become digusted," he said. "I've been producing for 12 years, medals up and down my chest, and what's the point . . . if another job comes along, I'll take it."

At the center of the controversy is a new aspect of the city's promotional system involving the oral evaluation of officers taking the test.

The oral assesment panel has been controversial from the moment it was suggested a year ago. Its recommendations account for 40 percent of the overall score for officers taking the sergeants' and lieutenants' exams and 50 percent for officers taking the captains' exam.

Unlike the old assessment system, under which officers were evaluated by their immediate supervisors, the new evaluations are made by a panel of police officials unfamiliar with the officers' career performance and a psychologist from the private sector. The exam is also now given after the written test instead of before, as evaluations had been in earlier years.

Officers contend that the new system promotes favoritism.

"I think it's a buddy system," said Dennis Jones, an officer in the communications department. Jones said he took the exam but didn't study because he felt the exam was "rigged for the in crowd."

In some instances, officers who ranked high in 1978 placed very low in 1980. Many officers said such differences could only be accounted for by favoritism on the part of persons on the panel toward officers under evaluation.

In June, attorneys for the police union filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking the department for test results, evaluations, profile analysis and any information available that could justify how the new exam was developed and the discrepancy in the test scores.

A few weeks later, the request was denied.

Marty M. Tapscott, assistant chief for administration, yesterday dismissed the complaints as minor.

"Naturally you're going to have officers who don't score well complain," he said. "Most people were satisfied with the process."

He said the scores were realistic and expected.

"(The exam) was designed that way. The written exam was to test you knowledge of the job. The oral assessment panel was to test you ability to carry out the job."

The lawsuit was filed after a group of officers wrote to Larry Simons, head of the police union, claiming they had been discriminated against by the new police promotional procedures.

The suit filed Wednesday claims the officers on the 1978 list were told they would be promoted and therefore did not properly prepare for the 1980 examination.

"These guys thought they would be promoted off the old list," Simons said. "A lot, quite frankly, didn't study too hard (for the 1980 test) and finished way down on the list, with no chance of being promoted."

The lawsuit claims the police department breached a contract with the officers, many of whom could lose thousands of dollars in salary increases as a result of losing their opportunities for promotion. One officer said he would lose $1,000 a year by not being promoted to sergeant.

The suit was filed by both black and white officers. Union officials stressed they were not claiming the department's promotion procedures discriminate on racial grounds.

In 1978, a controversy over the police promotion test centered around allegations that some parts of the test were leaked in advance to certain black officers to promote blacks in a department dominated by white officials.