Sparked by charges of police misconduct that surfaced in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Justice Department is examining the Los Angeles Police Department to determine whether there is a "pattern" of civil rights abuses by officers in one of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies.

The department's civil rights division is in the early stages of an investigation that will seek to determine whether alleged abuse by Los Angeles police officers, including excessive force, is a systemic problem, sources said yesterday. The investigation began after racist comments by former LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman and allegations of fabricated evidence became a focal point of Simpson's successful defense.

Broad federal investigations of police misconduct in cities have been rare and controversial, since police internal affairs units and local district attorneys claim primary jurisdiction over disciplinary matters in those agencies.

But under last year's crime bill, the civil rights division gained new authority to develop "pattern of practice" cases against agencies with egregious records.

Since then, officials say, the department has worked on developing a "handful" of cases against city police departments across the country that have been criticized for widespread civil rights violations.

A pattern-of-practice investigation, in which Justice could bring civil charges against an entire department, and criminal probes of individual officers are among the tools the department could use in examining Los Angeles, which one official described as an "extremely sensitive" situation.

The Los Angeles Police Department, with about 8,000 officers, has been under intense scrutiny since the 1992 riots triggered by the acquittals and mistrial of four white officers who were videotaped observing or participating in the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King.

The Justice Department later successfully prosecuted two of the officers on federal civil rights violations.

In the Simpson case, legal analysts speculated after the verdict that concerns that police were capable of serious misconduct against a black defendant played a role in the decision by a mostly black jury to acquit Simpson. Attorney General Janet Reno promised shortly after Simpson was acquitted that the department would look into suspected civil rights violations.

Capt. Bob Ruchhoft, a spokesman for the LAPD, said he was aware that the Justice Department was contemplating an investigation but did not know specifics.

Department lawyers have reviewed at least one specific complaint of abusive practices that related to a case Fuhrman described in taped interviews with a screenwriter.

In recent years, the civil rights division has received a number of other complaints against the LAPD, primarily from African American and Hispanic residents.

The department is trying to decide what staffing will be needed for the probe that will also involve the Los Angeles offices of the FBI. It is considering asking the LAPD's internal affairs division for its files on a number of cases involving excessive force as well as other documents regarding complaints, brought forth largely by African American and Hispanic residents.

Geoffrey Garfield, spokesman for the LAPD's Police Protective League, a police union, said that police do not expect the Justice probe to find a widespread problem.

"The huge majority of officers are doing their job in a professional manner," he said. Fuhrman's remarks now threaten an "LAPD image on the upswing." His comments unfairly taint the department, Garfield said, and were "like a nuclear bomb."

While noting that civil rights investigations involving police officers are among the most difficult and sensitive to conduct, particularly in a city with volatile race relations such as Los Angeles, a senior law enforcement official said Fuhrman's remarks to a screenwriter ultimately left officials little choice but to probe further.

In the tapes, Fuhrman talks about a number of specific acts against African American residents, speaks as if such acts were generally accepted by Los Angeles police and names other officers who were allegedly involved in misconduct.

"Most real good policemen understand that they would love to take certain people and just take them to the alley and blow their brains out," Fuhrman declared in one excerpt. In another, while explaining his opposition to the construction of a new police station in South Central Los Angeles, he said, "Leave that old station. Man, it has the smell of niggers that have been beaten and killed in there for years."

During the Simpson trial, defense lawyers played tapes and displayed transcript excerpts of 41 instances in which Fuhrman used the slur "nigger" and 17 instances in which he uttered that and other racial epithets and made references to his own or other officers' alleged misconduct.

The city's police commission already has begun its own investigation into Fuhrman's remarks. Spokeswoman Elena Stern said the commission welcomes the Justice Department involvement. "The implications for the department and the community are potentially significant. We take this very seriously."