Charges of brutality and overreaction by police in several recent cases are prompting a reach for fresh answers to a longstanding problem: how to check the sometimes excessive use of force in police work.
Experts say that a more vigorous prevention effort is apt to have the most direct and lasting impact in reducing police brutality. This effort would range from more careful and thorough screening of recruits and training of new officers to setting the clearest possible guidelines for use of force.
Spurring the concern:
* In Newark, N.J., the fatal shooting two weeks ago of a member of the Guardian Angels by a police officer during the investigation of a tavern burglary. Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa has called it a ''cold-blooded killing,'' while police term it a ''tragic accident.''
* In Chicago, the conviction last month of two white police officers on involuntary manslaughter and official misconduct charges in connection with the death of a black man arrested for smoking on the subway. The police argued that the man vowed they would need a gun to take him and made the arrest difficult by swinging at and kicking the officers. Eight eyewitnesses said they saw little resistance from the victim as the officers repeatedly beat and punched him.
Also in Chicago, three other officers were acquitted in a criminal court a few weeks earlier of attempted murder charges in connection with the beating of three men they had arrested for allegedly firing shots at the police. The case is still under investigation by the US Attorney's office and by the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards.
* In Milwaukee, the awarding a few weeks ago of $1.8 million to the estate of Daniel Bell, a black killed by a police officer in 1958 after having been stopped for a traffic violation. Charges of police brutality have long caused police-community friction in Milwaukee. The case, once disposed of as justifiable homicide, was reopened a few years ago when the policeman's former partner revealed that a knife had been placed in the victim's hand in an attempt to make the police shooting appear a defense move.
In another Milwaukee case, which has stirred up an even greater citizen backlash, Ernest Lacy, a young unemployed black, died in police custody last summer after he was arrested for a rape it was later learned he did not commit. Indictments of three police officers and two paramedics charged with contributing to his death are expected soon.
Another recent indicator of the need for repair of police-community relations in this southern Wisconsin city: the largely white police force went on strike for 16 hours on Christmas Eve. Two of their own had been fatally shot. Their walkout was to protest a local alderman's comment that the young black with a police record who was charged with the shooting might have acted out of fear that police would kill him. Police conditions for a return to work included a request that the city quickly establish and finance a comprehensive police-community relations program. It is a move long resisted by Milwaukee's police chief. The city's Common Council has pledged to look into the request.
One key problem in trying to keep force by police at a minimum, says Herman Goldstein, a professor in the University of Wisconsin Law School and author of ''Policing in a Free Society,'' is that the use of deadly force is largely a discretionary area where there is often a ''vacuum'' in terms of departmental guidance.
''Much depends on what the (police department) administration does to fill the void and on how committed they are to it,'' says Professor Goldstein.
Thompson Crockett, director of operations for Police International Ltd. police training and management consultants, agrees that commitment at the top is crucial. Silent condoning of excessive use of force sometimes leads to an institutional pattern, he says, and may have its start in the natural tendency of most police departments to try to protect the agency from outside criticism.
''It's a cultural thing - a certain climate of acceptance that can send a signal to the rest of the department,'' says Mr. Crockett. He suggests that one way for a department to send a strong countersignal that excessive use of force will not be tolerated is by setting up a ''vigorous'' internal investigations unit which is ''serious'' about its mission.
"I think the most important influence on the officer in the street is the police leadership and the tone it sets,'' agrees Gary Hayes, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization of police chief executives from larger jurisdictions. ''If he knows that the police chief means what he says about the need for restraint and an abiding concern for individual constitutional rights, that can do more than anything to control his behavior. The officer usually knows better than anybody whether that message is sincere or whether the leadership is just saying it to look good.''
Experts agree that one of the wisest moves a police department can make is to prevent anyone particularly prone to violent behavior from becoming an officer in the first place. Robert Angrisani of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) says there has recently been a dramatic upgrading of efforts both to screen out such potentially undesirable recruits through psychological testing and to increase the stress training portion of each officer's education so he is better equipped to cope with the frequently tense situations he must face.
Any veteran officer who has a tendency to resort to more violent behavior, says Mr. Crockett, can usually be easily singled out for counseling and supervisory help. Though Mr. Crockett stresses that most officers have no trouble in this regard and are prone to underuse rather than overuse of force, ''some in making arrests always wind up in a scrap with somebody.''
An intensive look at other alternatives can also help. Professor Goldstein, for instance, suggests a more earnest effort to train officers to understand the difference between ''real and meaningless'' threats.
''Who is Guarding the Guardians?'', a recent report of the Civil Rights Commission, argues that training in the use of deadly force is often insufficient, and the report makes a number of hard-hitting suggestions for reform. It recommends, for instance, more careful regulation of department-sanctioned weapons and continued training in their use. Specifically, the report suggests barring the display of weapons in situations where their use would not be warranted, and firing at or from any moving vehicle. It also urges police departments to require reports on and investigation within 24 hours of each firing of a departmental gun.
A markedly similar group of recommendations aimed at better control of police misconduct was issued a few weeks ago by the Police Executive Research Forum. Like the CRC report, it focuses heavily on prevention efforts but also recognizes the importance of improved community relations and calls for a more systematic and open approach to handling citizen complaints. The Forum suggests that complaints be accepted from anonymous sources, juveniles, and those under arrest, as long they contain enough factual information. They recommend a 120 -day limit be set for investigating each complaint.
Setting up citizen review boards to investigate questionable police enforcement action and citizen advisory committees to serve as sounding boards is also viewed by some experts as an after-the-fact aid in helping keep police use of force to a minimum. Often, particularly in black communities, there is mistrust of police and a tendency by some to look on them as an occupying force rather than a protection.
Indeed, in some cases the charge of police brutality is voiced routinely after almost any arrest. The repercussions can be serious: Police might fail to respond as quickly as they might otherwise to calls on crimes in progress in areas where they will only be subject to more criticism.
It can also takes its toll in the way in which some families are notified of deaths in the course of law enforcement action. The Chicago Crime Commission, an independent watchdog organization of local business leaders, has received a number of complaints recently from families who say officers often tell them little and without much sensitivity.
''Even if somebody is the worst felon in the world and if the police officer acted justifiably in the course of duty, his family still deserves to know the facts and to be told with some tact and with a lack of callousness,'' says Patrick Healy, executive director of the commission. ''I think the black community lacks a great deal of faith in the answers they get from the establishment - some tend to reject the right answers along with the wrong ones, which is tragic.''
Mr. Healy suggests that strong community ties are vital for any police department. To ignore that need, he says, is to invite trouble. But once again there is an important line between department commitment and ''show.''
''The big question,'' says Mr. Healy,''is whether they're serving the community or just trying to protect the department.''