THE THREE FINAL candidates for Seattle's top cop position have been named, and their strengths have already been trotted out as proof that the mayor's selection process had done its work. All the candidates, we're told, have outgoing personalities, want to emphasize community policing, and have extensive experience in law enforcement.

So what's wrong with them? If you dig enough, the dirt eventually piles up.

RICHARD WILLIAMS: MR. FRIENDLY

Williams currently heads the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin.

The upside: As an African American, everyone assumes he'll deal well with minority issues. "People like him--the business community and the social service agencies," says Frances Huntley-Cooper, recent head of Madison's local NAACP. The department's police union praises Williams' openness, an attribute ex-Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper could not claim.

The downside: At various times, Williams has been accused of delegating too much authority to his assistant chiefs. Critics say Williams also lacks vision. His predecessor initiated community policing, and while Williams expanded upon it, he has done nothing truly innovative for the department.

Moreover, Williams' department has occasionally acted like the Iron Curtain. The alternative newsweekly Isthmus had to sue Williams' department twice to gain access to internal-affairs investigations. The weekly won both times, and the secretive department was stuck with the paper's legal fees.

Williams didn't return our phone calls by press time.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: MR. CLIMBER

He's with the U.S. Justice Department, in charge of monitoring and administrating federal law enforcement grants. Before that, he had a four-and-a-half-year tenure as Buffalo's police commissioner.

The upside: The media adores Kerlikowske. The local Urban League and the local NAACP give him high marks. Moreover, Kerlikowske's reputation has weight among reputable law enforcement officials across the country.

A mixed review: The Buffalo police union is complimentary of Kerlikowske, but that may have to do with the fact that the union is strong enough to push the commissioner around on a lot of issues.

The downside: Kerlikowske's ambition is transparent. Money was a major issue behind his leaving Buffalo. He would have had to stay for 10 full years before he qualified for a pension. "I've just turned 50 years old," Kerlikowske said half-jokingly. "I don't have a tremendously long time left [to save money]." He had only been at the Justice Department for 14 months before he was seen on the short list for a police chief job in Florida.

Would the Seattle Police Department give him the kind of money he'd need? Kerlikowske obliquely replied that salary and pension "are all side issues" that would be addressed later.

WILLIAM McMANUS: MR. HARD-ASS

One of three assistant chiefs in D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department.

The upside: McManus is given good marks by law-and-order types like prosecutors. He gets praise for handling the toughest precincts in D.C., where the crime rates are high and where racial and ethnic diversity pose difficult challenges.

A mixed review: The Washington Post cited him as playing an instrumental role in squelching protest demonstrations at the D.C. meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). That news doesn't excite local activists like Robin Denburg. "If McManus oversaw the IMF response, that's a big problem," Denburg says. "They [police] kicked the crap out of people."

The downside: Don't let his great hair fool you--McManus is not the man to raise department morale, and the Seattle Police Officers Guild is going to hate this guy. Frank Tracy, the Chairman of D.C.'s Fraternal Order of Police, says 95 percent of union grievances are generated from people under McManus' authority, even though McManus only oversees one-third of the department.

One story has it that McManus dissed his own officers on New Year's Eve. He ordered some cops to stand around traffic intersections in anticipation of electronic chaos brought on by the Y2K bug. As they loitered, the officers heard shots, and ran to see what was happening. The resulting investigation netted the officers 15 illegal guns, one of which had been stolen from the police department.

What did McManus do? He chewed his officers out for leaving their posts.

McManus denies this ever happened. As for his harsh disciplinary style, he replied, "I have a very, very low tolerance for people who don't do their jobs."