THE CRIME RATE is rising and the police chief quits. Some suggest he quit because he could not persuade the mayor to hire more policemen. That controversy goes on. Meanwhile, it obscures a key point. The city is losing a top-notch policeman. When Burtell M. Jefferson came to the department 32 years ago, there were no black officers of any rank. When Walter Washington appointed him police chief, the first black to fill that post, there were mumbles about his ability to handle the job and about whether Congress and the White House could be confident with a black police chief in the nation's capital.

These mumbles are no longer heard as he leaves after three years in charge of the city's 4,000-plus police officers. The police department remains the most respected agency in a city government known for ill-mannered employees and unresponsiveness. Chief jefferson managed budget cuts ably, even while working under a mayor who did not appoint him. He contained the tensions within the department, including questions of racial preference in promotions. One of his innovations was to create a new rank, master patrolman, to reward good police officers who could not move up in a department whose numbers were holding steady or shrinking.

Outside the department, Chief Jefferson dealt efficiently with the Iranian demonstrators, the farmers on the Mall and the other groups whose exercise of their rights in Washington adds a unique dimension to the work of city police. He also faced loud demands for better policing of 14th and U streets and whites are purchasing homes and bumping up against the local drug trade. As the chief retires, the crime rate is rising to levels not seen in the last 10 years, and crime is becoming the No. 1 issue in town. But it cannot be said this is happening because the police are sleeping on the job or because the chief had his eyes closed.

The man who replaces Burtell Jefferson will probably be under even greater pressure on the budget and crime fronts. He will have to be an exemplary police officer, as Chief Jefferson unquestionably has been, and a good administrator and a good public representative of his department. The job of chief of police in Washington now has national exposure, and only the best offices should be considered eligible for it. Chief Jefferson's career was a triumph of hard work and racial roadblocks. He helped make this city a better place to live.