The D.C. police department, short on manpower after a long hiring freeze and a record number of retirements, is sending special patrols of officers working on overtime onto the streets for the holiday season in an effort to hold down the District of Columbia's skyrocketing crime rate.

Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson announced Tuesday the "immediate initiation" of what he called "a special city-wide high visibility crime patrol program intended to reduce robberies, burglaries and larcenies."

The participants, he said, are volunteers, working on their days off, at time-and-a-half overtime pay. Jefferson refused to tell reporters how much the program will cost, but it was learned later that the figure is less than $1 million. The money is available despite the city's financial squeeze, Jefferson said, because it was appropriated for salaries in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 but not spent because there were fewer officers on the force than anticipated.

Mayor Marion Barry told reporters Tuesday that he approved the plan despite the cost because the approach of Christmas traditionally brings an increase in crime, and the major crime rate in the city has already risen to its highest rate in a decade. The average number of major crimes reported each day in the third quarter of this year was more than 200; in October, armed robberies were up 80 percent over the previous October.

The crime rate has fluctuated while the size of the police force has declined from a peak of 5,100 uniformed officers in the early 1970s to the current 3,654. In his effort to pare the city's payrolls, Barry imposed a hiring freeze early this year and encouraged senior officers to retire, with the result that a force authorized in the budget to have 3,880 officers only had 3,600 by Sept. 30. Six more have left since then, and the department only now is organizing a class of 25 recruits -- a task made difficult by uncertainty over whether those hired will be retained as the budget squeeze tightens and by the requirement that they live inside the city.

Jefferson said the overtime program, aimed at "inundation" of high-crime areas, would put the equivalent of 85 additional full-time police officers on the streets each week. The available money, he said, will be divided evenly among the seven police districts, and the district commanders will have the authority to dispatch their patrols to suit conditions in their areas -- on foot or on scooters, in uniform or in street clothes, at night or in the daytime.

The chief said that the number of volunteers is expected to exceed the number of assignments available. Participants, he said, would be chosen from among the most aggressive and effective officers, with the aim of capturing suspects as well as deterring crime by their presence.