As Montgomery County police officer Scott Feldman patrolled the back roads and cul-de-sacs of Gaithersburg one recent evening, he broached the subject that his fellow officers prefer to discuss in private: race.

It has been an unshakable issue in a police department dogged by criticism that some officers target and brutalize minorities, where NAACP complaints have led to a federal review, where the county recently paid $2 million to compensate the family of a black man accidentally shot to death after being stopped by a white officer and where the newly named chief is nationally known for his crusade against the use of racial profiling by police.

Feldman says he and his fellow officers profile all the time. But he insists it's not as simple as black and white.

"Behavior is why I stop people," Feldman says, pausing for fear that what he's about to say will sound racist.

But, he continues, when he sees a person acting suspiciously, "more often than not they're black males." He said other officers are "scared to say it because they don't want to be labeled a racist."

Later, he says: "To be honest, my sense of suspicion is greater towards black males than any other race of people -- not Asian males, not minorities but black males. Because the majority of the crimes I've seen were committed by black males, even though I know the majority of black people aren't criminals. That's why regular, good citizens sometimes get caught in the mix."

The extent to which police consider race in making traffic stops and arrests has grown into a national controversy. The practice has been denounced by President Clinton and already is surfacing as an issue in next year's presidential contest. After simmering for many years, it was elevated to that status in recent months by incidents including the fatal shooting of an African immigrant by white New York policemen and the indictment of two state troopers on charges of attempted murder in the shooting of three black men and a Hispanic man on the New Jersey Turnpike.

To police in Montgomery County, pressures on matters of race have gone beyond the issue of profiling, as a county that once was largely white and affluent -- policed by an overwhelmingly white police force -- has evolved into a more racially and economically diverse community.

The change has meant that Montgomery officers now may respond to several calls in a row without encountering a native English speaker. It is not uncommon for county police to be the only white people at a disturbance or an accident scene.

For Feldman, who patrols in the Germantown district -- 260 square miles, from Gaithersburg to Germantown, from Poolesville to Damascus -- dealing with issues of race are an everyday reality. He was one of several Montgomery County police officers who took a Washington Post reporter on patrol with him in a recent two-week period.

During almost 100 hours of riding in Montgomery patrol cars, few officers displayed interest in talking about race, even those handpicked by their lieutenant to speak about the issue. But tension over skin color -- usually more subtle than overt -- was fairly constant.

On one occasion, officers grumbled when a black man said he preferred to talk with a black officer. On another, white officers felt shunned by black patrons in a restaurant. A black officer got a mixed reception in black neighborhoods, while one white officer said he takes careful notes on some encounters with black citizens for fear of racially based lawsuits or complaints.

"Sometimes it's on your mind so much that black or Hispanic people are treated better," says Cpl. Rod Stephens, an 18-year veteran. "It's constantly weighing on you. If you're dealing with a [combative] drunk white person . . . you're not worried about taking him to the ground in a fight.

"With a black person, you're always thinking about it. You know there's that avenue. It'll be scrutinized, and it could turn into a racial incident. You won't treat the person any differently, but in the back of your mind, you're thinking: Will there be more to this than meets the eye?"

It is 4 p.m. on a Monday, roll call for Sgt. Tina Faas's squad. The cinder block room at the back of the station off Germantown Road fills with laughter when Mike Curry -- one of the squad's two black officers -- learns that a reporter has been assigned to ride with him for four nights.

"Careful what you say, man!" one colleague says, laughing.

"Is this on the record?" says another.

"Be careful," another jokes. "He likes to date white girls!"

Curry smiles. He is used to this. It is part of the roll call razzing -- an equal opportunity sport -- that cops, including him, relish. Other officers still laugh about the time last winter when Faas warned the squad to watch for "black ice" on the roads.

"Aw, Sarge," Curry had said, his voice dripping with mock distress. "How come you have to make everything racial?"

Curry begins his patrol in the Gaithersburg area with the routine things that fill a 10-hour shift and rarely make it onto "NYPD Blue": He pulls over a man for an incorrect temporary tag. He takes a report from a fifth-grade boy who says a girl tried to strangle him after school. He checks on a call from a Prince George's County woman who thinks her stolen car may have been dumped near a Gaithersburg body shop.

His eyes constantly dart from car tags to taillights. At night, from behind, it is difficult to tell the race of a driver he has pulled over. Because of the headrest, it is often only the tiny slivers of skin on the back of a driver's ears, illuminated in Curry's spotlight, that might give away a driver's race.

"I'm just looking for reasons to stop people," Curry says, "to find drugs or a drunk."

He is one of 148 African Americans out of 985 officers on the force. Although Charles A. Moose recently became the second black chief in the department's history, the rest of the record on minority advancement is less encouraging. Since 1922, only four other African Americans have risen to a rank above sergeant. Two of them now are lieutenants. No Latinos or Asians have risen that far.

It is not something Curry dwells on -- at least publicly.

"I've been treated very fairly," Curry says, more than once. "If there were officers treating black people unfairly, do you think I'd work here? Do you think I wouldn't report it to my sergeant?"

About 11:30 on a Thursday night, Curry answers a call for disorderly people outside a Gaithersburg town house. He pulls up to find Feldman, three other officers and five young men. Three of the young men are black. Two are Hispanic. Except for Curry, all of the officers are white.

The young men have the look -- part indignant glare, part bored stare -- of people well-versed in encountering police. Feldman says he smells marijuana and asks for their licenses and permission to search them.

"What's the disturbance?" one of the men asks.

None of the officers responds as they pat down the group for weapons and drugs.

"What's the disturbance? What's the problem?" the man asks again. His friends are shaking their heads.

"We got a complaint, man, that's why we're out here," Curry says. "Someone said people were out drinking and maybe doing drugs."

Then Curry notices one of the men, a black man, glaring at him, directly.

"You got something to say to me or you just like looking at me?" Curry asks him.

"I'm just elaboratin'," the man says, sneering. "Can't I do that?"

"Elaborate all you want, man. Can't I ask a question?" Curry answers.

The warrant checks come back negative. The young men saunter off, shaking their heads and muttering.

As he pulls away, Curry turns up the volume on his radio to hear the next call. He says nothing, until he is asked what the young men might be thinking.

"They're probably thinking, `These cops just stopped us because we're black, and that's messed up,' " Curry says.

"But it's not true," he says, noting that they were responding to a resident's call, and that's all he has to say.

And then, for the first time in four nights, Curry volunteers a story about being a police officer under the racial microscope.

It was last summer, and he was chasing a stolen car. Two teenagers, both of them black, jumped from the car and ran. So he followed, sprinting after them through a neighborhood. That's when he heard the shouting.

"Why don't you leave these black kids alone?" a woman shouted from her porch.

"They didn't know the car had been stolen or that I'm chasing them for that," Curry says. "They think I'm just out chasing black kids, and that was a black family talking to a black officer."

Indeed, a report released by the County Council last week found that black residents were twice as likely as whites to feel that police treat people unfairly or use excessive force.

Roll call is interrupted a week later when a receptionist from the station's front desk slips into the room and jots a note for Cpl. Rod Stephens.

"Tell him we'll send a police officer," Stephens says.

"I told him that," she says in a low voice.

"Tell 'em they can talk to a police officer," Stephens says again. "We don't do that."

What's up? the squad asks.

"She said someone up front wants to make a report with a black officer," Stephens says.

"Ah, man," one officer says.

"That's ridiculous!" says another.

Eyes roll.

"We wouldn't send out a white officer to someone who requested a white officer," Stephens says. He sends Officer Stacey Bingman, who is white, to the front counter.

McCrae Lang, 28, a janitor at the nearby Department of Energy, tells Bingman he was walking along Germantown Road the previous afternoon when a burgundy pickup truck pulled alongside and a man shouted a racial slur at him.

"I was very upset, I was very angry," Lang laters tells the reporter, his eyes teary. "I don't know if there was prejudice or not. That's why I asked for a black police officer. I figured they'd understand more."

Sgt. Ray Hanson has been a Montgomery police officer for nine years. Only recently, he says, has he come to feel the tension that revolves around skin color.

He says his awareness sharpened with the reaction to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police.

"I saw [angry] police officers" on the videotape, Hanson says. "I didn't assume it was a race thing. I saw it as an excessive force issue."

The perception gap grew worse, he says, after O.J. Simpson's lawyers "played the race card."

"I think there's a definite percentage of minorities out there who, when I encounter them, race is at the forefront," Hanson says as his patrol car rolled through the streets of Germantown on a Friday evening. "I don't know if I'm just noticing it or it's now there. But with lots of minorities, you get the feeling that they're going down the checklist on me: Is he legitimate? Is this bull----?"

Late in the evening, four of Hanson's officers -- all of them white -- meet for dinner at the Diner X-Press at Bowl America on Clopper Road, a popular police hangout for cheap, late-night dinners.

"You see that?" says one officer.

"Yeah," says another. "They wanted to get as far away from us as they can."

A black couple sitting at the adjacent booth had gotten up as soon as the fourth officer had sat down and moved to a table across the room. The officers insist the couple looked their way before changing tables.

"I personally think they didn't want to sit next to a bunch of white officers," says one of the officers, David Najafi. "To request a non-smoking area and then get up and move all the way across to the smoking area?. . . The impression they gave made it look like it was because of us."

Two weeks earlier, Najafi says, he saw a car stopped illegally in the fire lane in the Gaithersburg Square Shopping Center parking lot. He says he was about 100 yards away, so he flashed the spotlight of his patrol car at the sign that said: "No Parking, Fire Lane." The car pulled forward and stopped in another part of the fire lane. So Najafi says he flashed the sign again.

"This lady jumped out and said, `You're only pulling me over because I'm black,' " Najafi says. "I said, `Excuse me? Lady, I can't see what color you are from the back of your car.' I said, `Don't assume I'm racist when you don't even know me. Get quiet and move your car because it's not worth getting angry about.' "

Najafi says he jotted notes of the encounter in a small steno notebook he keeps tucked beneath the sun visor of his patrol car. "I took notes just in case it ends up being a complaint," he explains. "I got the name of witnesses who could say just how this lady was acting."

He started keeping track of such encounters a year ago. This was the fifth one he recorded.

"You need to be protected," he says.

It is well after midnight on a Tuesday when Scott Feldman joins another officer in questioning two teenage boys who are walking along Great Seneca Highway. One is white, the other black. Both are wearing oversize T-shirts and baggy, drooping shorts.

"Keep your hands out of your pockets!" another officer says as an eager police dog noses toward the teenagers' feet.

Feldman tells them a teenager was kicked and beaten by 10 teenagers that night who robbed him of $30. The only thing the victim could remember was that his attackers had dark skin.

The black teenager says nothing. His friend says they were at MCI Center in Washington all evening -- they've got their ticket stubs in their pockets to show for it -- and they're heading to a Giant supermarket for a late-night snack.

Feldman addresses both of the teenagers as "sir." He looks at their knuckles (no cuts or bruises) and their sneakers (no blood splatters). The warrant checks come back negative. He sends them on their way.

Jason Worthy, the black teenager, says later that it was probably the 12th time he has been stopped in the past four years.

"One part of me," he says, "thought they stopped me because I'm a black kid with corn rows in my hair."

Feldman says otherwise.

"Like it or not, race plays a major factor in identifying people," he says. "If they said [the attackers were] white males, I'd stop every white male out here. But the lookout was for a black male, so black males will get stopped out here tonight. Innocent black males will be stopped, even though they didn't do anything, but because they happen to be the same skin color."

He said he thinks many of the complaints of insensitivity stem from the fact that citizens don't understand the "reality" of what it's like to be a police officer.

Last spring, he says, two gas station attendants were robbed at gunpoint. Both crimes occurred about 1:30 a.m. about a week apart. Both attendants described the robber as a black man.

Had he gotten the report of a third gas station robbery at the time, he says, his reaction when looking for suspects would be instinctive.

"If there are two Nissans -- one with black males and one with white males -- I'll go with the car with black males in it because my experience is that the majority of lookouts in my district are for black males," Feldman says. "Who would you follow? I'm not going with the black guys because I want to get them, or because I think all are criminals. The bottom line is my experience shows that the majority of robberies are committed by black males. I'm playing the odds."