When Darlanne Fluegel, longtime wife and seductress of cops on both large and small screens, learned she was about to become a TV policewoman, she knew immediately it would be the hardest work she had done.

"I want cops everywhere to look at this and say, `Yeah, this is us - the good, the bad and the ugly about us,' " says Fluegel, Fred Dryer's new female partner on the long-running "Hunter" (Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Ch. 2).To make herself seem an authentic member of the Los Angeles Police Department's ultra-elite Metro squad, the willowy actress put in almost three months of study at L.A.'s Police Academy and on ride-alongs with the real-life Metro squad.

"It shattered my image of cops," said Fluegel, 33. "These people are not intimidating, they're friendly. Now I understand something I never knew before, too - the risk they take just wearing a uniform. They're doing a risky and nasty job."

Fluegel's own job portraying officer Joanne Molinski opposite the veteran Dryer's Rick Hunter is neither risky nor nasty.

"This has been just a great set to walk onto," she said. "It's a very welcoming group. There's no feeling of insecurity here. And there's been absolutely no resentment of me replacing Stefanie Kramer."

Kramer, Dryer's sidekick for the first six years of "Hunter," left the show voluntarily. Her Dee Dee McCall character was written out of the show, getting married and moving to London.

Fluegel tries to avoid comparisons.

"Our backgrounds as actresses are completely different," she said. "And Joanne is a Metro cop, not a homicide detective like Dee Dee was. To be a Metro officer, you have to be tops, especially if you're a woman. "So the show will change. There are other new people coming in, too."

Will Hunter have a deeper relationship with officer Molinski than he did with Dee Dee? No one's saying just yet.

"We just don't know," said Fluegel.

In previous roles, she was policeman Billy Crystal's wife in "Running Scared" and the wife of crimebuster Mike Torello (Dennis Farina) in NBC's "Crime Story."

"But this time I've got a part that's not a stereotyped female role as a wife or girlfriend," she says happily. "This is bigger, so I can show a broad spectrum of Joanne's emotional and physical life. And I was delighted to get to play a cop.

"As a wife, you only deal with how the job affects someone on the periphery. But here you learn that they risk their lives every day and the job never leaves them. That's why this part took so much preparation."

Fluegel has always had the sort of independent mind that allows her to come onto a well-established, popular program and read scripts critically.

She left the family home in Binghampton, N.Y. after graduating from high school at 16, just after her father died.

It was off to New York, where she modeled for the fabled Ford Agency while studying acting.

"I never wanted bimbo parts," Fluegel said. "When I was in New York, I figured I'd rather model than come to California and take those kind of parts."

The problem was that her modeling work soon had her typecast for exactly those kinds of roles. Her first major movie character was a model in "The Eyes of Laura Mars."

She also had to deal with her name. Fluegel isn't exactly mellifluous, she readily concedes.

"There was a lot of pressure from agents, publicists and even Gene Shalit on `The Today Show' asked why I keep it," she said. "But I want my family to be proud of me. And I find that once people hear the name, they don't soon forget it."