When the two Polish patrolmen got around to asking a few questions of their own, they wanted to know about their counterparts in the United States, the American police.

They had imagined that police work in the states was rougher even than in Warsaw's meanest neighborhoods. No, they wouldn't trade places. Too dangerous for them, they said, especially compared with the safety of martial-law Poland.

"I haven't used a gun in my job once," said Sgt. Stanislaw Socik, a 15-year veteran of the Warsaw police force, as he cruised the streets here one evening last week with this reporter and an interpreter riding in the back seat.

"We have guns for cleaning," joked his partner, Sgt. Bogdan Nowicki, who has been on the beat for nine years.

They said they would hate to have to deal with the Mafia or the street gangs or some of the other U.S. criminals they know from watching TV episodes of "Colombo" and "Kojak." They like those series--much better done than similar Polish-made versions, Nowicki said.

"Here, there are no professional criminals," Socik said. "Just amateurs."

A country with no professional criminals and yet with martial law. In the United States, with all its hoodlums, there is no martial law. This twist was pointed out to Nowicki and Socik.

They did not respond. The subject was dropped. The cruiser drove on into the night.

These are Poland's men in blue-green, known in Polish as the citizen's militia. They are not liked by their countrymen, who often regard them as merely a cover for the security police, as another muscle in the arm of the state.

Martial law has not helped their image, either at home or abroad.

So Poland's Interior Ministry agreed to a request to spend part of a shift riding and talking with a few of Warsaw's finest, to relate their side of the story. A ministry spokesman said it is the first time in his recollection that a Western newspaper reporter had been allowed the privilege.

The assignment began at 4 p.m. Wednesday at downtown district headquarters on Wilcza Street. From the front, the station looks little. On the inside, its several floors are as cramped and worn as many American precinct stations. It is being remodeled, however.

Maj. Leonard Kaczorkiewicz, spokesman for the capital police force, handled the welcoming briefing.

"The pressure on us is considerably less than before Dec. 13," the date martial law was declared, he began, sounding relieved. Last year had been an extraordinarily difficult year for Poland's police.

They were under attack from outside, for cases of alleged brutality against Solidarity union activists, and from within, as a result of an effort by some militia to unionize and reform the force.

The crime rate, meanwhile, was rising sharply, a fact Kaczorkiewicz attributed to the social tensions and general destabilization caused by Solidarity's struggle with the authorities. Crime generally was up 40 percent in 1981, he said, and burglaries of private apartments, a major share of the cases, tripled.

Martial law cracked the trend line, choking criminal activity for a spell. The shock of military rule, the summary judgments being meted out by courts against violators, the enforcement of an 11-to-5 nightly curfew, all discouraged crooks.

In recent days, though, criminal actions have been somewhat on the rebound. The crime rate is still just 40 to 50 percent of what it was prior to martial law, the major said, noting that it has fallen back to the level of the start of the 1970s. But some of the initial fright of the crackdown has lifted.

"People simply got used to it," the spokesman said, "and as you know, the consequences aren't drastic." For a misdemeanor, such as staying out past curfew or traveling outside one's home district without permission, the penalty can be up to three months' forced labor or 5,000 zlotys--about 60 percent of the average monthly wage.

That was why the authorities launched a two-day police sweep two weeks ago, code-named Operation Calm--to warn people not to get too lax about observing martial-law regulations. The operation was exaggerated in the West, said Kaczorkiewicz, recalling that it had been condemned by the Reagan administration as renewed repression.

It was really hardly anything more than a regular police street-cleaning operation, the major said, that netted some drunks and prostitutes and mostly just people traveling around without proper documents. There were raids on speak-easies and some known criminal hangouts. Petty stuff, he indicated. Out of 145,000 checks, only 3,500 persons were detained for questioning at police stations and ultimately only 119 were arrested.

Of course, there are more police on the streets these days. Warsaw's militia force has been beefed up about 20 percent, Kaczorkiewicz said, by moving cadets out of the academy and onto the beat ahead of schedule and by calling up police reservists.

In addition, police units from towns outside Warsaw have been rotated for duty into the capital area. This does not count the deployment of Army troops and of the special Interior Ministry police forces, whose presence on patrol have contributed to the physical impression of Poland functioning as a police state now.

"I rather benefit from them being around," said Warsaw's deputy downtown commander, Maj. Bonifacy Frankiewicz. "They do my job for me."

The last armed robbery in this city of 1.3 million people was in 1964, when a bank convoy fell under attack, the police said. The number of murders each year was averaging 60 to 70 before martial law, most of them resulting from brawls and arguments. In a society largely without private firearms, crimes against human life are less a problem than crime against property.

But Poland's crime rate was rising long before Solidarity came on the scene. It climbed through the 1970s, Kaczorkiewicz explained, as the country's standard of living went up. People acquired more goods of value, so there was more to steal. Foreign tourist traffic, too, picked up, bringing much-coveted hard Western currency into Poland.

"There was a general mentality of 'Let's get richer,' " the police spokesman said. "So especially the youth wanted things fast, without working for them." Drug use also became a problem, he said, although classic drugs are not available here. What gets consumed is mostly of a homemade variety, Kaczorkiewicz said.

Still, the spokesman blamed Solidarity for contributing to a climate of nose-thumbing at the authorities that made criminals bolder. "It gave a certain ideological base to resistance to authority," he said, and also recalled several cases in which the union specifically intervened on behalf of those arrested.

A high point of last year's lawlessness, he said, was the burning in May of a police building in the town of Otwock south of Warsaw by drunken youths in retaliation for claims of police brutality against two other youths detained the night before.

For Solidarity, a high point of police aggression, in turn, had come two months earlier with the beating of two peasant activists and one local union leader in the city of Bydgoszcz. The incident created a major crisis for Solidarity and the authorities.

The militia's revived sense of reestablished security was deeply unsettled two weeks ago when a 35-year-old senior sergeant was shot on a Warsaw trolley. He died several days later. It marked only the fourth killing of a police officer in Poland since a wave of anticommunist terrorism that ended in 1949, according to the spokesman.

The police say they have few clues in the shooting. The gunman had asked the police officer to hand over his gun, then shot him with what was described as a "homemade weapon" when the officer appeared about to use his gun instead of surrendering it. No slogans were shouted as the gunman fled into a crowd, and no one has claimed the killing.

"It may be the beginning of an armed criminal group," said Kaczorkiewicz. He was asked whether it could also mark the start of a new period of terrorism. "We're certainly not excluding such a possibility in the current situation," he said. But he added that aside from the stationing of an antihijacking squad at the airport, no special antiterror teams were being trained.

Nowicki and Socik, setting out for the evening patrol, said they had been working together for a month. Nowicki's father was a policeman, which was why the son joined the force. Socik said he drifted into the job after working as a truck driver for a police-related firm.

Both were born and raised in Warsaw. They seemed even-tempered, well-drilled, solid, the sort one might see on an old "Dragnet" episode--Just the facts, please, ma'am.

"The work has been more or less the same as before martial law," Nowicki said as the car rolled away from the station. There is at least one big difference, however.

"You don't see drunks anymore, and that was a majority of our crime. In Poland, most crimes are under the influence of alcohol," Nowicki said.

The two officers would mention the drop in alcoholism several more times during the evening.

"The duty is pretty gray," meaning dull, Nowicki added. "You don't get break-ins or shoot-outs. It's usually petty crimes, checking IDs, lecturing to people, et cetera."

The first radio call came at 5:27 p.m., ordering the car to a city electric power station where a drunken brawl had been reported. Socik accelerated, but he didn't turn on the siren or blue flashing lights. Why not?

"You'll see what kind of intervention we're making," said Socik. "It's not at all necessary."

At the factory, no brawlers were to be found, and no one knew of any call to the police.

"Now you see why we didn't use the lights," said Socik. Does he get many hoax calls? "These are marginal matters," the sergeant said.

At 5:48, another radio call, this time with the order to report to Adam department store. A drunk was said to be causing trouble. It turned out to be a case of a drunk fast asleep in a corner of the store.

"A public disgrace," Nowicki remarked, seeming personally offended by the sight. "Before martial law, we'd be more lenient with drunks," though this one, he suggested, would probably have been hauled in under any circumstance.

A van travels around the city ferrying drunks to a center that sobers them up overnight in time to appear in misdemeanor court the next day. That was to be the fate of the department store sleeper.

Back in the car, Nowicki turned on the public radio. The voice of the Communist Party chief, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, came on, giving the keynote address to the Central Committee in its first meeting since martial law began.

There had been considerable anticipation of the meeting, I said. "I hadn't expected to hear the speech on the radio," said Nowicki. It was evident that he did not want to get into a political discussion.

Passing the Forum Hotel, the officers spotted several taxis idling in front, apparently waiting to draw foreigners, while several local customers lined up at a taxi stand some yards farther. Nowicki waved the taxis up to the stand.

"They have a hundred arguments why they can't move," he said, coming back to the patrol car, "Everything from, they've been told to wait, to, they've just retired."

At 6:38 a call came about a disturbance in the coffee shop of the Europeiski Hotel. A young man there, sitting with friends, had gotten into a quarrel with a waitress. The man, 26, who repaired accounting machines, was accused of swearing at the waitress and defiantly pouring vodka from a bottle he had brought into the restaurant, an illegal action.

He was taken to headquarters and along the way he tried to persuade Nowicki and Socik to support him in a plea at the station to be let go until the court hearing the next day. The officers did not appear sympathetic.

While being booked, he was caught trying to unload a pocketful of U.S. dollars by slipping the wad under a bench. He said the money was just his savings, but the police suspected him of being a money-changer.

It was time for a talk upstairs with Frankiewicz, the deputy commander, a 28-year veteran who had gone into operations after being bored by a job teaching crime prevention.

He read off some statistics, saying the day had been comparatively peaceful. Two cars had been broken into, two kiosks robbed, two minor-age prostitutes were caught trying to escape from a juvenile prison, seven persons from regions outside Warsaw were found in the city without permission to be there, one truck was stopped carrying electrical supplies without a proper invoice and two pickpockets were apprehended.

Pickpocketing, the major said, was a major problem in his district, which is the city's prime transit area. He wished he had more plainclothes officers to assign to catch pickpockets. He wished he had more policemen, period. He envied, too, the kind of equipment that American police stations have, especially the computers that can swiftly cross-check a suspect's identity.

"First we have to emerge from our economic crisis, then we can have computers," Frankiewicz said, clearly not expecting either development very soon.

There is a popular belief among Poles that their security services enjoy special privileges in the form of generously stocked canteens, better vacation arrangements, reserved housing and income bonuses. When the militia came under attack last year, an official propaganda campaign was launched to demystify the force by providing all sorts of data intended to disprove the notion of privilege.

Militia and their families were said to have to stand in the same shopping lines, wait for the same apartments and survive on the same sorts of incomes as everyone else.

Poland was also said in the weekly Polityka to have fewer militia per thousand citizens than many other countries. There are 4,500 traffic officers, 3,000 police in the criminal division and 461,000 reservists, the paper said.

Frankiewicz said it is difficult attracting recruits, given the pay. After three years, he said, a young police officer earns 7,000 zlotys per month, while if he had taken a factory job following attendance at a trade school, he would be earning 12,000.

Other reports have shown that it is not just the money that discourages young Poles from signing up to be militia but society's low regard for the job.

The major said that since martial law, he has been working longer hours than usual--12 on, 12 off. But the job itself, he said, had not become anything extraordinary.

"After so many years, you get used to your work," he explained. "It's like being a doctor. You get used to operating without paying much attention to who the patient is."

Frankiewicz is not the philosophical type. "Most reporters ask our political opinion, and that is wrong," he stated. "The role of the police is not to elaborate on the political situation. The role is to enforce the law. On the other hand, a policeman is not a robot. He knows what system he protects and for whom."

The major is a member of the Communist Party, and about half his militia also belong, he said. He had been listening to Jaruzelski's speech on the radio when his visitors arrived and had written on his desk calendar the damage assessments the Polish leader had provided about the effect of U.S. sanctions on Polish food supplies.

The commander quoted the figures back--a loss of 15 pounds per Pole per year in meat consumption, of $20 million in fish.

"I have people under arrest here, but I still continue to feed them," he said. "I can't punish anyone by refusing food or drink," suggesting the United States shouldn't either.

On the streets again at 9:30, Nowicki and Socik passed the Forum Hotel. "Hookers and money-changers are reemerging," Nowicki observed. "The situation is normalizing."

As curfew hour approached, traffic thinned. The officers weaved in and out of parking lots and back alleys, looking for burglaries in progress. They passed a shopping arcade. "There used to be a vodka peddler behind every pillar before martial law," Nowicki remarked.

At 10:03, the car was summoned to the British Embassy, where a man reported having been badly cut over the right eye.

He said he had been walking through a nearby park when two young men approached him, asked for a cigarette, then without warning or apparent reason, slashed him. He was wearing dark clothes.

The officers took him to a hospital. Asked why the attack may have happened, Nowicki said, "He was dressed like a policeman."

Past 11:00 and there were still some stragglers on the streets. "Some people simply can't get it through their heads that they can't be walking around," Nowicki remarked.

At 11:37, the officers stopped to check two young men waiting for a bus. The men, knowing they should not be out, asked for a break. But the officers planned to take them in, after taking this reporter home.

Standing at the base of the Palace of Culture, an enormous, Gothic cathedral-like structure built to honor Joseph Stalin, Nowicki tried to explain why he stays a police officer in a country regarded both inside and outside its borders as repressive.

"I know in the West, too, police do their duty and people don't look at them kindly," he said. "It's hard to say society will condemn a policeman for catching a criminal."

The key question of what should constitute a criminal in Poland went unasked and unanswered