In a city generally said to have good police-community relations, it looked like a routine police check. But then something went wrong. Two Atlanta police officers drove down a narrow street one recent evening in one of the city's large, crowded public housing projects. They noticed several men removing the tires of a car. Were the men stealing the tires, or just changing tires on a car one of them owned?
The officers stopped and questioned the men. Somewhere in the discussion things got heated.
As related by Sgt. G. L. Finch later that evening, the men got angry and other men joined them, threatening the officers. One of the men lifted a tire iron out of the trunk of the car. One of the officers took it from him and put it back in the trunk. The men surrounded the officers, who called for additional police.
When Sergeant Finch responded to the call, he went directly to the mother of some of the men, and refused to talk to anyone else. He asked her if she had ownership papers on the car, and she produced them. In the meantime, three of the men were arrested on charges including simple battery and use of profanity.
At the precinct station, Finch said it was ''dumb'' of the owners of the car not to simply produce the papers immediately.
But how had the officers approached the men? Had they been courteous, or had their behavior triggered a negative reaction?
Atlanta is a city in which police and citizen relations are very good, according to experts both inside and outside the police department. But following the riot in Miami late last month, sparked by the fatal shooting of a youth by a police officer, top police officials and civil rights leaders are stressing some basic approaches to reducing police-citizen conflict.
Their uncomplicated yet challenging message: Greater mutual respect and understanding are needed to improve relations and to solving the problem of racism, which often underlies conflict.
''Confrontations between citizens and police often stem from the most innocuous encounters,'' says Drew Days III, former head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under President Carter.
''Whenever black people vehemently protest, they (police) have to stop and listen,'' says Charles King Jr., director of the Atlanta-based Urban Crisis Center. In this case, if the officers had been better acquainted with people in the neighborhood, the incident might never have happened, he adds.
On the other hand, ''a lot of dudes (men) have had a brush with the law and they hate police,'' says Louise Watley, president of the housing project's tenant association. The key to good police action is ''attitude . . . it's the way you approach,'' she says. She says she would like even more police patrols in her area.
The Community Relations Service (CRS) of the Justice Department recorded 761 citizen complaints in 1982 against some aspect of the nation's judicial system, mostly against police, compared with 625 complaints in 198l. There were 116 allegations of police overuse of force in 1982 and 137 in 1981.
But the CRS, with a limited staff, monitors and records only a fraction of citizen complaints against the police, says James Fyfe, an associate professor in the School of Justice at American University. Most complaints of excessive force by police are ''unsubstantiated - not proven either way,'' says Mr. Fyfe, a former lieutenant in the New York Police Department.
Police-community relations are getting better throughout the nation, but much remains to be done, he says. There is a great need for police and citizens to ''get into each others' shoes awhile'' - to appreciate each other's feelings and problems.
Tensions can be alleviated in a number of ways, officials say: through increased community meetings with police, having citizens ride along in police patrol cars, and greater police efforts to get to know the people on their beats , talking with them informally and listening to their problems.
In the past Ms. Watley has complained about the way white police have treated people in her Atlanta housing project. But, she says, things have improved. She adds that there has been a ''change in attitude of the kids toward police,'' because of the help of one black and one white police officer in organizing basketball games for local youths.
Improved police training on when to use firearms is also important, experts say.
But there are even more fundamental issues involved in many of the conflicts between police and citizens: race and racism. Most of the more violent confrontations have been between white police officers and black citizens.
(In this respect, the latest Miami riot was an exception: The officer who killed the black youth is Hispanic. But the 1980 riots in Miami followed the acquittal of white police officers in the death of a black who was beaten by police after a high-speed chase.)
''Police have the same racist feelings, sexist feelings, the same stereotyped feelings as society has,'' says Bobby -Doctor, Southeastern director of the US Commission on Civil Rights.
Police officials admit that there are cases of misconduct among some of their officers. But, they say, the important issue is the response to such misconduct.
''We will not tolerate anyone being rude or discourteous to the public - or brutality,'' says Atlanta Police Chief Morris Redding. If an officer has several complaints against him, he is called in and counseled, and may be given additional training.
''You basically go by the Golden Rule,'' Chief Redding says.
The commission's hearings on police conduct in various Southeastern cities over the past decade, including Memphis, Miami, and Jackson, Miss., revealed a consistent pattern of ''mistrust'' between police and blacks, Mr. Doctor says.
In the commission's June 1982 report entitled ''Confronting Racial Isolation in Miami,'' the commission urged police and citizens there to attack ''the underlying causes of racial isolation and exclusion.'' Among the recommendations: further integration of schools; more counselors to reduce the dropout rate; better vocational training; better enforcement of housing codes in low-income areas; improved screening of police hired.
Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms points out that the city has substantially increased its minority hiring and adopted additional restrictions on when officers may use their guns. He also cites the difficult, dangerous job of a police officer in deciding when it is proper to use force. He also has said that the Hispanic officer who killed the youth in the game room was out of the area he was assigned to, a largely Hispanic area.
In the cities studied by the Civil Rights Commission, police-community relations have improved, but not enough, Doctor told the Monitor.
Shortly after the latest riot in Miami, the city's Roman Catholic archbishop, Edward A. McCarthy, called on people in southern Florida to become ''catalysts'' in reducing racism in their daily lives.
''We commit the sin of racism by neglect because we avoid involvement in issues such as housing, employment, gerrymandering of voting districts, health care, and affirmative action,'' he wrote in a 28-page pastoral letter to south Florida's Catholics. He noted that Miami's blacks have generally been ''excluded from the economic mainstream of Miami.''
Such issues are national ones, says Earl Shinhoster, Southeastern director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Complicating such challenges, he adds, is that in spite of substantial racial tolerance, ''racism is still very much alive and well.''
But even a police officer with racist feelings can act fairly ''if there's sure discipline'' in cases of inappropriate police action, says Ozell Sutton, Southeastern director of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service. The CRS tries to mediate major police-citizen disputes and other clashes.
But citizen review boards, which evaluate police actions, are often a sham, he says. Other specialists say such boards often end up focusing on crime prevention plans, and usually are ineffective in disciplining officers.
The key to good discipline, he says, is the ''message'' that the person at the top of the department is watching and will not tolerate police misconduct, says Charles Napper, Atlanta's commissioner of public safety.
''Given the economic situtation in the country and other frustration, inappropriate police behavior can precipitate the kind of thing that has been going on in south Florida,'' Commissioner Napper says.