When the omnibus crime bill was adopted earlier this year, much was made about fighting crime by putting more "cops on the beat." Unfortunately, some of the cost may be paid by removing important federal law enforcement agents from the scene.

The Office of Management and Budget unwisely has recommended covering $53 million in new grants to local police by slashing the $53 million from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.This would mean the loss of 530 ATF field agents and technicians around the country - about one-fourth of the total. In addition, the OMB suggests cutting 99 agents from this year's budget.

Such a step would amount to getting rid of specialized, highly trained agents in exchange for rookie local cops. Of course, cities need more police in neighborhoods, but it doesn't make sense to do it at the expense of the ATF.

The agency is responsible for enforcement of federal gun laws. The proposed manpower reduction comes at a time when Congress has just given the ATF a bigger job because of passage of the Brady Bill and the ban on assault weapons.

The ATF also backs up local officers in cases involving armed gangs and illegal trafficking in weapons, often across state lines. Arson and bombings are two other specialties of the ATF.

Agents of the ATF are credited with cracking the bombing of the World Trade Center. And a recent national symposium on street crime lauded the ATF as the most productive and cooperative federal law enforcement agency working with local police on street gang problems.

Budget analysts justify the recommended cuts by saying the ATF should assist local police rather than directly investigate gun law violations. But what about cases that cross state lines or involve federal gun laws?

The loss of agents would affect the apprehension of many violent criminals each year and impede collection of millions of dollars in gun licensing fees. Cutting the ATF would save pennies and cost dollars as well as weaken federal law enforcement. That's hardly the way to fight crime.