"HOURS OF BOREDOM filled with minutes of terror" is Lt. William Freeman's description of working as a street cop in Washington's Third Police District downtown--and that is the precise, fascinating truth so stunningly related in "Street Cops," the just-concluded, seven-part series by staff writers Athelia Knight and Benjamin L. Weiser with photographer Linda Wheeler. From six months' immersion in the high-pressure lives of 180 officers and officials, this team has produced for readers a gripping and remarkably candid account of what police officers endure and how they react in a rotten world of drugs, prostitution, poverty, death --and a variety of terrific pressures on the individual officer.

What emerges is an infuriatingly imperfect system of street justice--all-out war, really--in which individual officers, constantly in danger, must make snap decisions. The agony, the fear and the necessity of hanging together are detailed--and in it are actions and reactions that often fail to meet the standards of conduct most of us wish were met at all times by today's urban police officer: rough stuff, arrest quotas, harassment of sidewalk bystanders and bad blood between certain hard-driving members of this law enforcement team.

As the series pointed up so graphically in each installment, the street cop is living in "fear of the unexpected, meeting too many people at the worst moments of their lives, seeing too much of the aftermath, and denying all the repressed emotion has taken its toll." And the enemy never surrenders, no matter how many arrests are made. If the junkies and others who make life so miserable for the residents of "3-D" are immune to traditional methods of law enforcement, so, too, in various disturbing manifestations of self-defense, are many of the police.

By-the-book rules of law enforcement do get lost in this hopelessly seamy atmosphere. There are cases of police brutality, there are arrest quotas, and stationhouse/gutterside "plea-bargaining" has in some instances replaced the courts. The reporters have told it as they saw it and heard it--neither as an indictment of police conduct nor as a defense of illegal behavior. Their story has its heroes, corner- cutters and bad actors, all trying in their own imperfect way to do a job that others wouldn't approach for a minute. Some are more compassionate, circumspect and thoughtful than others. But in this closer look at the men and women of 3-D, we find that our better understanding of what they undergo, do and feel is coupled with a greater respect for their ordeals in the name of public service.