An overwhelming majority of District residents say they are satisfied with the performance of local police, but their level of support is the lowest among residents of a dozen cities ranked in a broad national survey released yesterday.

The report, prepared by the Justice Department and based on interviews with members of more than 10,000 households, also showed a continuing gap in the perception of police performance by whites and minorities. While only 10 percent of whites in the 12 cities expressed dissatisfaction with the local police, 24 percent of blacks and 22 percent of other minorities said they were dissatisfied.

Overall, 85 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their local police, including 18 percent who said they were "very satisfied."

In the District, 78 percent of residents said they were satisfied, the lowest approval figure for any of the cities.

The responses of D.C. residents also reflected the national disparity in perceptions of police performance by whites and blacks. While 81 percent of District whites said they were satisfied with the local police, only 75 percent of D.C. blacks said they were satisfied.

The white satisfaction level in the District was the lowest in the cities surveyed. The black satisfaction level here was also near the bottom: Only blacks in Chicago and Knoxville, Tenn., expressed less satisfaction with local law enforcement.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the District is doing well, with a 78 percent approval rating for police performance, "considering where we are coming from. . . . I've been here a year, and I'd say we've got a long way to go, but that 78 percent is nothing to be ashamed of."

"Those other cities didn't have to come back as far as we did," he added.

Ramsey, who noted that the District's violent crime rate is currently 10 percent below the national average, came to Washington in the midst of an investigation into corruption in the D.C. police department and alleged wrongdoing by the previous chief. Since becoming chief, he has asked the Justice Department to investigate the use of force by D.C. police officers in response to a Washington Post series that showed that District police had the highest rate of excessive use of force of any department in the country.

The Justice Department report comes at a time when police performance and relations with the local community are topics of growing interest around the country. Next week, Attorney General Janet Reno will play host to a conference on the subject. Justice Department officials said police executives are eager to have information such as that contained in the report to help guide their decision-making.

The survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services included the nation's two largest cities -- New York and Los Angeles -- as well as Kansas City, Mo., Madison, Wis., San Diego, Savannah, Ga., Spokane, Wash., Springfield, Mass., and Tucson.

The Justice Department conducts a national survey on crime victimization annually, but this was the first time in 20 years that the department conducted in-depth interviews in selected communities to learn more about public attitudes toward the police and crime.

Compared with the other cities, Washington ranked at or near the bottom in several categories:

District residents were the least satisfied with the quality of life in their neighborhoods. In some cities, including Kansas City, Knoxville, Madison and San Diego, more than 90 percent of residents said they were satisfied with their neighborhood's quality of life. In D.C., 79 percent expressed satisfaction, slightly below the satisfaction levels in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, which were around 81 percent.

District residents and their counterparts in Chicago were the most fearful of neighborhood crime. Almost half of those interviewed in the two cities said they feared neighborhood crime. Fear of neighborhood crime in the other cities ranged from 20 percent in Madison, a state capital and the location of the University of Wisconsin, to 45 percent in Springfield, an aging industrial city in western Massachusetts. However, less than 10 percent of those surveyed in any of the cities said they were "very fearful" of neighborhood crime. In the District, 7 percent described themselves as "very fearful."

More District residents reported knowing of serious crimes in their neighborhoods during the previous year than residents in any of the other cities surveyed. Half of D.C. residents said they knew of such crimes. In the other cities, knowledge of neighborhood crimes ranged from 28 percent in Knoxville to 43 percent in New York and Chicago.

D.C. and Savannah had the highest property crime rates among the cities, with 445 crimes per 1,000 households. White District residents had the highest property crime victimization rate of any group in the survey -- 513 per 1,000 households. D.C. and Knoxville were the only two cities where whites were more frequently the victims of property crimes than blacks.

On the other hand, based on the survey, the District had the lowest violent crime rate of any of the cities -- 60 crimes per 1,000 people -- and District whites were the least likely to have been victims of violent crimes of any group in the survey. The violent crime rate against D.C. whites was 52 per 1,000 people; against blacks, the rate was 67 per 1,000 people.

Violent crimes covered by the survey included rape, sexual assault, robbery and assault. They did not include murder because murder victims could not be interviewed.

During the 1990s, the murder rate declined in all of the cities surveyed except Spokane and Tucson, including an almost 27 percent drop in the District. But according to FBI data, in 1997 the District's murder rate of almost 57 murders per 100,000 people was more than double the murder rate in any of the other 11 cities.

Staff writer Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.

Satisfaction With Police

In a survey of residents of 12 cities, whites were consistently more satisfied with police than blacks. In D.C., whites were less satisfied with police than whites in other cities.

Percent of residents over 16 satisfied with police

Overall

Black 76%

White 90%

D.C.

Black 75%

White 81%

SOURCE: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Black White

Chicago 69% 89%

Kansas City* 86 90

Knoxville, Tenn. 63 91

Los Angeles 82 89

Madison, Wis. 97 97

New York 77 89

San Diego 89 95

Savannah, Ga. 81 88

Spokane, Wash. 79 88

Springfield** 76 90

Tucson 91 88

* Missouri

**Massachusetts