East of the Anacostia River and south of Pennsylvania Avenue, police in the last two years have amassed a front-line defense in the District's war on drug violence, a battalion of street patrol officers that soon could reach 500.

It is there, in the 7th Police District, that the human toll has been highest. When the department reaches its authorized hiring level of 5,055 officers, perhaps as early as next year, the 7th will have more patrol officers assigned to it than any other district.

But now an independent study has concluded that this deployment is seriously flawed. The 7th District, says the Rivlin Commission's critical study of the city and its personnel practices, needs only 262 well-managed patrol officers, less than half the number authorized. Everything else is excess -- a total of 1,608 officers citywide -- a result of throwing money at a crime problem that cannot be solved by staffing alone, the study said.

"The politicians, the Congress, the police and others have convinced the community that the more police officers you have, the less crime you're going to have," said Darrel W. Stephens, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which conducted the portion of the study dealing with police staffing. "If that's true, why are we not safer?"

The study, released in November, is the first comprehensive analysis of D.C. police staffing in more than 20 years, and it attempted to answer a critical and controversial question: Just how many officers are needed to patrol the District adequately 24 hours a day?

What was uncovered, the examiners wrote, was an overstaffed, mismanaged department that sometimes assigned officers to districts only on paper. Its high numbers aside, the force is so poorly deployed, the study said, that recommendations in the Rivlin report would actually place more officers on the streets.

The study was dismissed by Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. and Mayor-Elect Sharon Pratt Dixon, both of whom rejected the suggestion that the force be cut. Last week, in his first detailed comments, Fulwood said the report was "flawed," fraught with mistakes and misleading. Although he acknowledged that the department needs to improve, he said the report's authors "either lied, or they were misled."

"They said the police department is a bunch of fat, happy cats, and that's just not true," Fulwood said.

Since 1985, spending for police services has risen 65 percent -- from $151.7 million to $249.9 million -- and the study estimates that the reduction in staff alone would save $62 million. The force, the study said, has too much management and too many officers performing tasks that can be done by civilians.

In March, when the study examined the department, it found that only about four out of 10 officers were assigned to street patrol. The examiners concluded that the youth division, with 73 employees, should be disbanded and its investigators parceled out to other offices. At the least, the study said, the division does not need a deputy chief, a captain, four lieutenants and 10 sergeants.

Overtime, which cost $21.7 million in 1989, was described as out of control. Court overtime for the first quarter of 1990, about $7 million, equaled the entire amount spent in 1989. The study blames an anti-drug strategy based primarily on arrests, and the U.S. Attorney's Office, which requires officers to appear at conferences before charges are filed. Without proof that drug arrests reduce crime, "it is difficult to justify policies that favor massive numbers of criminal arrests," the report says.

Fulwood said one of the report's central contentions -- that 44 percent of officers are on patrol -- was incorrect. He said that 74 percent of the force is assigned to the patrol division, but that the number actually on patrol varies from day to day. In any case, the department has increased by 800 officers since the study was conducted, and that alone has altered figures.

The suggestion to disband the youth division is "one of the most misplaced in the report," Fulwood said, because the division has a special mission -- early intervention and rehabilitation for juveniles.

Fulwood, who criticized the examiners for not interviewing him, said he agreed with one of the study's recommendations -- the need for major capital improvements. But he said the report failed to mention several factors that have helped shape the department in the last five years, among them a hiring freeze on civilian positions and a capital budget that did not increase between 1986 and 1989.

Moreover, Fulwood said, the department has made some significant changes since the study was conducted. Discretionary overtime ended as of Oct. 1, a program to monitor court overtime has begun, and "power shifts" in each district put more officers on the street at night.

But of all the recommendations, it is the proposed reduction in the force that is the most controversial. Although Fulwood steadfastly denied that the force is overstaffed, the Fraternal Order of Police agreed there are too many commanders and did not dismiss the need for a staffing review.

"We've got to strip away management, take the savings in their budgets, train the managers we have. Once you've done that, let's look at the manpower," said Gary Hankins, chairman of the FOP's labor committee.

Hankins said that in 1988, when the FOP doubted the department's staffing figures, it conducted a head count and found there were twice the number of officers in the city's business areas as in poor areas of Southeast and Northeast. The staff increases of the last two years have corrected that imbalance, and the perception that the added officers are preventing even more crime carries considerable weight.

"We're in the middle of a war here," Hankins said. "People are dying all over the place. This isn't an academic exercise . . . . Manpower becomes more essential than ever."

The Rivlin review was conducted in a year of unprecedented growth for the department, and its conclusions challenge a staffing boom made possible by a $31 million funding package approved by Congress in 1989. This year, the department has hired about 1,200 officers -- 15 more than are on the entire police force of Seattle, a city of 514,000. Once the authorized strength of 5,055 is reached, the force will have about eight officers for every 1,000 residents, by far the highest number of officers per resident for any big city in the nation.

The study said the department, by hiring so many officers, is adhering to a discredited law enforcement practice: the belief that staffing alone can reduce violent crime. It is a practice encouraged by politicians and sold to residents, police management experts maintain, and it ends up forcing cities to add officers.

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry balked last year at hiring officers but was overruled by the D.C. Council and Congress. Several experts said the blame for the supposed overstaffing here must be shared by the elected officials who unilaterally decided to boost the force, believing that alone would curb violence.

"Very sophisticated people on the city council make that assumption," said James Fyfe, a member of the Rivlin Commission and a criminology professor at American University. "There's no way that police can protect people from individuals who want to assassinate them, unless you assign police officers to them."

There is almost universal agreement in police management circles that there is no direct relationship between resources and crime. A landmark study in Kansas City, Mo., in the early 1970s concluded that random patrols by marked police cars in a neighborhood had no effect on the level of crime.

In the District, the FOP argues, crime patterns of the last two decades do support a larger police force. In 1970, when there were 3,900 officers, the District reported 66,746 serious crimes. Two years later, after the department hired 1,200 more officers, the number dropped to 44,000.

Police management experts say it's impossible to compare that time to today because the nature of crime changes. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was more street crime, "stickup" homicides that can be prevented by police presence. Moreover, they say, the drop recorded in the District was consistent with other cities where police staffing did not fluctuate.

Fulwood, however, says no one can measure the effect of an officer in a neighborhood. His analysis, he said, is admittedly unscientific, based only on his 26 years of police work. "How do you know that crime would not be worse if you did not have the police officers on the street?" he asked.

Rather than rely on staffing alone to reduce crime, police are recognizing the need to attack the causes of crime, such as poverty and the lack of drug-treatment facilities. The study said that if the District reduced the force by 1,608 positions, the savings over five years would be $334 million, which could be diverted to these social ills.

"I think there is a clear argument, in the case of Washington, that more money is needed for health care, social services, for mothers living in poverty," said commission member Patrick V. Murphy, the director of public safety under D.C. Mayor Walter Washington. Murphy also has headed police forces in Detroit and New York City.

But it is the politics of reducing the department -- when the District continues to set homicide records -- that presents the greatest obstacle. "That's a tough sell," Fyfe said, "and that's why nobody who wants to run for office could put it on the table."

Current Staffing: ..................4,850 Positions

Number of Positions Recommended for

Elimination by the Rivlin Commission: ........1,600

RECOMMENDED STAFFING LEVELS:

District........................1....2....3....4....5....6....7

Deputy Chief....................1....1....1....1....1....1....1

Captain.........................4....4....4....4....4....4....4

Lieutenant...............13....13....13....13....13....13....13

Sergeant.................37....36....36....35....36....28....35

Detective/Investigator...24....23....19....15....17.... 8....12

Officer.................266...256...267...255...264...202...262

Total...................345...333...345...323...335...256...327

CURRENT AUTHORIZED STAFFING LEVELS:

Officer.................464...439...451...455...472...385...506

Total...................570...529...552...276...551...444...581

SOURCE: Metropolitan Police Department