The wife of Lindberg Sanders, the black religious zealot slain along with six devotees by police, tried to have him committed to a mental hospital the day before he and his followers took a white police officer hostage.

Police say officer Nolan Hester may have been tortured before he finally died from a beating. Friends of Sanders said he believed that police were the "anti-Christ."

Sanders' wife, Dorothy, was told by a county mental health clerk that legal proceedings would take several days, said Probate Judge Joseph Evans, who oversees such commitment proceedings. "She said, 'That won't do, that won't do,' " Evans said in an interview today.

The clerk then advised Mrs. Sanders to telephone police for help. Under state law, police are empowered to take the mentally disturbed to hospitals for observation. But Mrs. Sanders feared police would do nothing unless they actually saw her husband committing a violent act and gave up trying, said Evans.

"It's a flaw in the system that needs to be changed," Evans said.

Meanwhile, Memphis found itself caught in a crossfire today between angry policemen who want to know why no assault was launched before it was too late to save Hester and a black community that wants to know why seven blacks were shot to death after the officer was killed.

"You could hear Hester yelling over the radio, 'Oh, God, please help me,' " said L.K. Edwards, 30, a patrolman who monitored the rescue attempt over his radio scanner. "You knew one of your own was hurting. It ripped your heart out."

But C.B. Myers, 66, a black community leader, said "I believe the killings could have been avoided. If they'd just put enough tear gas in there, they could have driven them out without shooting. Deep down in my heart, I feel the police held off as long as the white officer was alive, then got even."

Maxine Smith, executive secretary of the local NAACP, sent a telegram to the U.S. Justice Department demanding an "impartial investigation to avoid an erosion of public confidence in the community-police relationship by citizens drawing erroneous conclusions."

Ray Maples, president of the Memphis Police Association, said, "The guys are very upset, and rightfully so, because we did not go in and get the officer earlier."

The object of their criticism is police director John Holt, an ex-beat cop who advanced to the top job last year. Holt held off ordering the attack after the tactical unit wanted to go in. He said he feared an assault would mean "certain death" for Hester.