New warnings are being sounded that instances of police brutality could increase unless the Reagan administration continues the intensive federal probes of excessive police force begun under President Carter.
Lobby groups voicing concern about excessive use of force by police -- and what many of them feel is the possibility that federal efforts to curb it now will grind to a halt -- cover a wide sociological and geographic spectrum. They include the private, nonprofit Police Foundation, headed by former New York City police commissioner Patrick Murphy, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and citizen watchdog groups specializing in police issues.
These groups already had expected to be lobbying hard in the coming months for more crackdowns on police abuses. But after the shooting deaths of four civilians by New York metropolitan police officers in the past week, their efforts are accelerating. Some of them now believe that the Reagan administration will be force to grapple with the issue much earlier than anticipated.
"They will have to make a decision earlier than later," says Mr. Murphy. "The issue is much more alive now than ever before. And it's not just a New York problem; it's a national one."
The Reagan administration has taken no official position on police brutality. But Murphy believes the surge of interest in the issue may help antibrutality groups in pleading their case with the new administration. He cites these reasons for increased awareness of the problem:
* More federal involvement during the Carter administration.
* Much additional research on the subject conducted in the past year.
* Recent incidents that have splashed the subject across the front pages of newspapers.
Experts are divided over whether excessive use of force by police has declined nationally, although many say progress is being made in a number of local communities.
"We're getting as many complaints of police brutality as we ever had," says Mary Powers, a director of Citizens Alert, a watchdog group for police issues in Chicago. Richard Emery of the New York ACLU says: "One of the chief deterrents to police brutality [and a reason it may have lessened somewhat] has been the fact that the federal government has investigated alleged incidents of brutality in Houston, Philadelphia, Miami, and other cities in the past several years."
"Certainly," says Murphy, "the Federal Bureau of Investigation has done excellent work on the problem, and this has had a very positive impact because local police know that with the FBI doing the investigations, they will be fair."
Federal involvement in what essentially had been a local issue began in earnest under former US Attorney General Griffin Bell. In August 1979, in one of his last major acts before leaving the Carter administration, Mr. Bell signed papers that initiated an unprecedented federal suit against the entire Philadelphia police department.
The suit charged a pattern of police misconduct in Philadelphia by top police officials, a charge that came as no surprise to some local citizens' groups. In April 1979, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia issued a study that concluded: "Seventy-five persons who were shot [by police] in the last nine years were not only not engaged in a violent felony, but were warned and running away at the time they were shot."
A US district court judge in Philadelphia dismissed the federal suit on the grounds that the attorney general did not have authority to bring it. This decision now is under appeal. Some steps against excessive police violence already are taking place in US cities:
* Philadelphia. Under Mayor William Green, the top brass of the police department has been revamped, and a citizen complaint bureau established. The number of shootings of civilians has declined, and many black and other minority leaders in the community say there has been a change for the better. But some contend that far tougher rules are needed to restrict police use of firearms.
* New York. Controversy continues over the four recent shooting deaths, not to mention a fifth in nearby Garden City, Long Island, of an Adelphi University soccer star. Although New York City Police Commissioner Robert McGuire says he cannot "second guess" officers who have to make split-second decisions, he now says he has no objections to off-duty policemen not carrying guns when they drink alcohol, a step recommended by the Federation of New York State Rifle and Piston Clubs Inc. This group also asked the Assembly to pass a bill that would ban off- duty police from carrying guns at a bar.
* Chicago. After intensive lobbying by concerned citizens, the Chicago Police Department has officially asked off-duty police officers not to carry their guns if they are in a place that serves liquor. There have been numerous complaints in Chicago and many other cities about off-duty police officers who fired their guns in bars unnecessarily. The police department also has established an Office of Professional Standards to hear complaints from the public. But spokesmen for Citizens Alert in Chicago claim that the office's processing of complaints is slow.