The president's crime message to the International Association of Chiefs of Police was a long- needed, tough-sounding presidential signal.

He called crime an American epidemic that reflects the breakdown in our criminal justice system, and proposed initiatives for federal agencies, a legislative agenda for Congress and a common-sense philosophy for the country that stresses a return to self-discipline, family principles, volunteerism and moral integrity.

The specific proposals sound good: a foreign policy that seeks to interdict and eradicate illicit drugs wherever cultivated; a border policy to improve detection and interdiction of illegal narcotic importation; assistance for the victims of crime; greater involvement by the FBI and IRS in drug trafficking investigations, and Cabinet-level attention.

The problem is that while the president's message calls for increased effort, the resources of the FBI, IRS, Drug Enforcement Administration, Coast Guard, Customs Service, Bureau of Prisons and the State Department's International Narcotic Assistance Bureau have been cut back significantly and the number of federal prosecutors reduced as well.

Ninety percent of all illegal drugs in this country come from overseas. The size of this illegal business has reached $80 billion. Next year's State Department allocation for world- wide narcotic control assistance will now be $35 million, grossly inadequate. Ironically, the international drug traffic, when confronted with serious bilateral efforts and adequate resources, has proven to be vulnerable. In Turkey and Mexico, our partners, with assistance, effectively shut off the illicit supply of gum opium at the source, reducing heroin deaths, injuries and crime in this country.

But over the last six years, while the overall federal budget has skyrocketed, law enforcement has lost ground. There are over 10 percent fewer FBI, Customs and Drug Enforcement agents than in 1975. The United States spends one-half of 1 percent of its national budget on crime control and criminal justice; Japan, Canada, Great Britain invest several times as much and get better results with a higher certainty of punishment of the offender.

As highlighted by the president, such things as parents' groups, citizen involvement, crime victims' assistance, restitution, military assistance for drug interdiction, realistic bail and Cabinet-level involvement are all needed initiatives. But while private citizen groups can lay a hiking trail instead of the Department of the Interior, prosecutorial decisions and international agreements cannot be delegated. Parents' groups can be an influence, but they cannot substitute for an effective narcotic eradication program.

The Department of Justice's budget is now scheduled to be cut $145 million at a time when the Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime strongly recommends a substantial increase in personnel and resources for federal law enforcement agencies.

President Reagan has called for strong and consistent measures to combat crime. The trouble is that the Office of Management and Budget is sending out his law enforcement deputies with blank cartridges. Congress most likely will increase the resources allocated. This would be one set of budget restorations the president himself should be glad to approve.