It's less than shocking, in a town with a notoriously colorful police history, when Chicago's finest are caught conspiring with Chicago's criminals.

But today, seven officers in the Chicago police department's tactical unit were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly stealing and extorting more than $65,000 from "criminals" in their west side district. They might have gotten away with it, except the criminals were fellow Chicago police department and FBI undercover agents.

"They were not only acting as cops, they were acting as robbers," U.S. Attorney James Burns told a news conference.

The officers, now being called the "Austin Seven" after the largest neighborhood in their district, sparked memories of the "Marquette Ten," a group of west side officers who were indicted in 1982 for extorting money from actual drug dealers.

Burns's office charged Gregory S. Crittleton, 31; Edward Lee Jackson Jr., 26; M.L. Moore, 48; Alex D. Ramos, 31; Lennon Shields, 29; Cornelius Tripp, 34; and James P. Young, 30, all members of the 15th district tactical unit, with 21 separate counts of conspiracy to commit robbery and extortion and illegal use of firearms in what has been dubbed "Operation Broken Star." Another man, Charles Vaughn, 25, not a Chicago police officer, was charged with one count of committing a robbery.

All eight men pleaded not guilty and are being detained until a hearing set for Monday morning.

The investigation began more than a year ago when the Chicago police department's internal affairs unit received a tip that the officers were engaging in unspecified illegal activity. The department called in the FBI and at least two agents were assigned to go undercover, posing as drug dealers in the 15th district.

The indictment lists 12 instances between December 1995 and this month when the plainclothes officers allegedly extorted money from the undercover agents to allow them to continue dealing drugs without police interference.

A spokesperson for the Chicago police department said the amounts stolen or extorted at any one time ranged from $500 to $25,000, and totaled $65,990.

"The indictment alleges sometimes they stole, sometimes they shook {the undercover officers} down and that these officers were carrying or used firearms in violent crimes like robbery or drug offenses like protecting drug dealers," said Randall Samborne, spokesman for the U.S. district attorney's office.

The officers have been suspended without pay. If found guilty, each face a maximum of 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine for the extortion and robbery counts.

CAPTION: U.S. ATTORNEY JAMES BURNS