Three officers ordered the suspect to spread his arms and legs against the car. They searched him and pulled a dozen syringes from his pocket. One took the needles and began snapping them in half, dropping them to the ground one by one.

"This is your trial," another officer said. "How do you plead?"

The voice was that of Sgt. Claude S. Malcomb, otherwise known as Cowboy.

The man turned and looked up at his accuser, his street judge, but said nothing.

"I find you guilty," Cowboy said. "I want you out of the area."

Cowboy is a formidable force and is meant to be. He is one of the most effective players in the anticrime theater used to police the large crowds of suspected drug addicts who spill off the corners onto 14th Street. Five days a week, Cowboy gives a command performance intended to provide criminals with a dramatic look into the future, their futures, if they continue to break the law in the 3rd District.

"The theater is so useful," says Lt. Ronald Harvey, who runs the 35-member drug squad. "It's communicated to the crowd . . . . It is a psychological test of willpower."

The number of drug officers on the street is at best about a third as big as the crowd that usually hangs out near 14th and U streets. Each arrest made will temporarily remove a criminal from the street, but it will also tie up several officers for the hour or so it takes to process the prisoner and complete the paper work.

The police know they must somehow be able to convince the street people not only that the officers are in control but that their presence has not diminished. In recent years they have resorted to psychological warfare--sometimes spontaneous, other times carefully rehearsed--to help combat 3-D's two biggest problems: drugs and prostitution.

"It's all perception. The mind is incredible," says Capt. Michael Canfield. "It seems like sometimes we accomplish a lot more by changing people's perceptions of what law enforcement is trying to do for them than actually getting down and doing it, that is, making arrests."

Canfield recently erected wooden barricades to block easy access to 14th Street in an attempt to confuse, if not harass, the nightly influx of drivers seeking prostitutes or drugs. He says his plan has worked: Traffic is diverted, crime is down, and some nights, 14th Street is practically empty.

"The citizens now believe that one piece of wood keeps those people out. It's just a goddamn piece of wood on a sawhorse," Canfield says. "The psychological implications are overwhelming. We've given the public a sense of security. This is just in the embryonic stage. If a guy saw Clint Eastwood with a .44 in his hand, they'd get out of the way."

Although the technique has not been used here on such a large scale before, psychology has always been an important part of police work--from the stereotypical "good-guy, bad guy" interrogation routines to what Canfield calls "bizarre behavioral modification" used to settle some domestic disputes.

Officer Wayne Simpson says he once gave a street divorce, which had no legal force, by so surprising the battling spouses that the situation was diffused. Simpson says he told them: "Raise your right hand . . . . By the power vested in me, I grant you a divorce . . . . Get your stuff and leave."

Officer Russell Brigham says, "I've always been a firm believer that the job is 98 percent bull----. You have to make people think you're doing something for them even though you haven't. When you leave they think the police have done a good job . . . . I call it bull----. It's psychology."

The key to Cowboy's success is that he keeps people guessing. Sometimes he'll stare a man down, and then calmly say hello. Other times, he'll ask a suspected junkie if he is holding drugs, then search him to find out. He might pick out someone and arrest him for a minor infraction.

Sometimes, Cowboy just mentions that he has seen him a lot lately.

"It's a game," says Cowboy.

Other officers help build up his reputation by threatening to call in "the Cowboy" if the crowds give them trouble. He has become so legendary that some Washington pushers have named a brand of heroin after him. Cowboy is now so feared that another dealer allegedly placed a $1,000 contract on his life.

Many junkies and pushers believe the tall Virginian has a special sense for detecting who is "dirty," street language for possessing drugs. Much of it is show: Cowboy often is tipped off by one of his partners observing the drug transactions from a nearby rooftop.

"Nobody scares the Cowboy," said Harvey. "He wreaks havoc."

One night last February, there were about 100 men and women on the corner of 14th and W when Cowboy pulled his cruiser to the curb.

He glanced up and three men walked away. Taking the keys out of the ignition, he reached for the door handle. Dozens more headed north on the 14th Street sidewalk. As he got out of the car, several scurried into Dottie's, a carryout near the corner. A couple dozen darted down W Street. Two jaywalked across the street.

Cowboy stuck his hands in his front pockets and followed the last few stragglers up 14th.

In about 30 seconds, he had cleared the corner.

As recently as two years ago, Cowboy was considered a burned-out street cop waiting to ride out his remaining years. But that was before "Operation Burbank," perhaps the most dazzling display of theatrics ever performed by the D.C. police department, cast Cowboy in a leading role.

In the fall of 1980, after Deputy Chief Rodwell M. Catoe took command at 3-D, he asked his officials to develop a plan to disperse the late-night crowds. Catoe said: "We aren't getting more men. We aren't getting new laws. We are faced with a situation that the community is totally unhappy with."

Canfield suggested psychological warfare as a means of combatting the crowds and says the goal was "to harass them, to make it so uncomfortable for them to deal overtly."

He outlined several options, including staging a gunfight in which a uniformed officer would pretend to shoot a cop disguised as one of the junkies. The idea was rejected as being too dangerous. So Canfield came up with an acceptable alternative: They would shoot the crowds with cameras.

Canfield needed someone to supervise the 10-member Burbank unit. His choice was almost as creative as the plan itself: a uniformed sergeant named Claude Malcomb.

"I gave him a little responsibility and, boy, did he take a turn around," Canfield says. "He went from the bottom all the way to the top. He turned out to be one of the most aggressive. My God, it was like pouring water on magnesium, adding a catalyst."

Canfield obtained surplus military equipment, including high intensity lights, portable generators, megaphones, walkie-talkies, binoculars, and sophisticated cameras.

The officers mounted the cameras in full daylight on the top of street lamp posts on 14th Street and aimed them at the sidewalk. They passed the word that everything--legal or illegal--would be filmed by the police and used as evidence against the addicts and pushers.

The police, however, almost never put film in the cameras.

One November night, about 6 p.m., Canfield, Cowboy and the Burbank officers converged on 500 people gathered in a vacant lot near 14th and U streets. The police department's tractor trailer was parked directly in front of the crowd. The high intensity lights were clicked on. Cameras and a dish antenna were set up. A few officers in flak jackets carried shotguns. One displayed a Geiger counter and said the device could detect drugs. Several others walked among the crowd and took pictures.

Canfield announced: "Chief Catoe wants this block."

Within 30 minutes, the lot was empty.

"It was like herding cattle," Canfield says.

The Burbank squad, in addition to moving the crowds, also made 389 arrests, seized $103,225 worth of illicit drugs and recovered 27 handguns and two rifles during the first six months of its existence.

After a while, the crowd got used to the van and the lights and Operation Burbank lost its effectiveness. Canfield left the squad. Gradually, the Burbank officers merged with the 15-man drug enforcement unit. Today, the unit concentrates more on investigations and less on theatrics. Except for Cowboy.

Cowboy's success on the street depends on making his presence continuous, certain yet unpredictable. It is vital that he keep his word.

One night Cowboy entered a small U Street carryout and told the owner he suspected him of selling heroin. While Cowboy didn't have enough evidence to arrest him, he warned the owner to quit dealing or he would personally be back to put on the handcuffs. A few weeks later, the owner was caught selling heroin to an undercover cop. Cowboy returned and clamped on the cuffs, knowing the story would obviously spread on the street.

Another time a slew of suspected drug buyers and sellers claimed to be waiting for the bus on 14th Street. He stayed around long enough to put all of them on the bus when it arrived.

Like many officers, Cowboy acknowledges that the drug crowd that has invaded 3-D technically is conducting its illicit business in public space.

Yet Cowboy says he is more concerned about the residents of 3-D. When their ground is invaded, when their back yards are filled with syringes and debris, when their sidewalks and streets are blocked for passage, the issue of the crowd's rights becomes somewhat secondary to him. He asks rhetorically, "Whose rights are being invaded?"

Cowboy is a tough sergeant who is constantly urging his officers to get out on the streets. Yet he can often do alone what takes several of them to accomplish: move the crowds into particular blocks and corners so that other drug squad officers, hiding in homes and abandoned buildings and roofs, can watch drug buys through binoculars. When they see a drug deal go down, the officers converge on the crowd in small groups, called "rip teams" or "jump-out squads," and arrest as many suspected drug sellers and buyers they can catch.

Cowboy does have his critics.

Alvin Brown, a 14th Street sidewalk vendor known as "The Hat Man," has observed Cowboy and said, "He feels that since he's the police that gives him the right to do anything."

Duane Brown, who lives nearby, said, "He looks at too much Starsky and Hutch."

Most of the residents give Cowboy better reviews.

Louise McCloud, a grandmother of three, recalls when a 9-year-old neighborhood boy ran crying to her last winter. He had been making a snow man, bent to pick up another handful, and came up with a needle containing heroin embedded in his palm. She rushed him to Children's Hospital. It was just another of a long string of such incidents. She has tried pouring ammonia and Clorox in her hallway to keep the junkies out and has repeatedly hosed down her front steps to make it an uncomfortable place for them to sit.

"The majority of the people thank God for Malcomb," she said. "They say, 'Cowboy is out there. We can go out and claim our steps now.' "

One February day, officer James V. Francis watched a man sell heroin near a parking lot on the corner of 14th and W streets NW.

He radioed the seller's description to Cowboy and another officer, David Willis.

Cowboy and Willis drove up to the curb. "That's him shadowboxing right in front of you," Francis radioed. Cowboy saw the slim, curly haired man who was bouncing back and forth on his feet, jabbing his fists in the air. He was the man they wanted. Cowboy knew if he went for the man directly, he might escape. Cowboy is a good actor, but a lousy runner, especially in his boots.

Cowboy shouted out of the car window to another man standing near the shadowboxer, "Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones."

Cowboy got out of his car, averting his eyes from the man he actually wanted, but never took his eyes off "Mr. Jones."

"Mr. Jones, I got a warrant for you," Cowboy said. "I been looking for you all day."

Then, with a spin, Cowboy grabbed the unsuspecting shadowboxer from behind. He was placed under arrest and searched by Willis, who found two packages of heroin.

Some onlookers mumbled insults at Cowboy's performance. "Show respect. Show respect to the Cowboy," Willis said.

Meanwhile the second man, whom Cowboy had used as part of his ploy, innocently showed Cowboy some identification, saying, "My name ain't Jones."

It was 4 p.m. on a Friday. Cowboy cruised the 14th Street corridor. A crowd of 20 to 30 people, smaller than usual, had gathered on both sides of 14th Street near W.

Cowboy watched as his drug squad colleagues ordered the crowd to move on.

"Ain't nothing out here tonight," said Leroy Croghan, a sergeant riding with Cowboy.

"You wait," Cowboy said, "things are going to be rolling."

A couple hours later, the crowd had grown. A knot of 50 people had gathered at 14th and W. Cowboy drove his car to the curb and rolled down his window. He shouted, "Is everybody clean?"

The crowd scattered, some crossing the street and others walking up the block.

Cowboy left an empty sidewalk. But he knew that as soon as he drove off, people would amble back.

As much as the psychological warfare and the intimidation are effective when the police are present, Cowboy knows the crowds are as determined as he.

One night in May, Cowboy watched a crowd spill off the sidewalk and onto the street. He stopped and scanned the corner. This summer, he said, he expects "an avalanche."

Tomorrow: Operation Groundhop