Members of the Salt Lake City police union are frustrated and it's easy to be sympathetic to their plight. They have not had a merit pay raise for two years and have not had a cost-of-living raise in four years. They are determined not to go another year losing ground to inflation.

Yet threats are not the way to go about getting the kind of new contract the union wants. When negotiations broke off last week in a deadlock over finances, the disgruntled officers vowed to picket the festivities for the newly-remodeled City-County Building this weekend.They also are talking about even more drastic moves, including a possible general strike. Such a walkout would be illegal. Last year, many officers engaged in picketing and a 24-hour"sick out."

That kind of confrontation is premature and does not contribute to resolving any differences, no matter how far apart the sides appear to be at present. There's still time to work things out, although it won't be easy. The present contract does not expire until June 30.

Mayor Palmer DePaulis is correct in saying that picketing and other actions are improper while a contract is in force and negotiations are still going on. Clearly, he doesn't feel the talks are at an impasse.

While the police perhaps can be excused for being short on patience after their experience of recent years, the abrupt breakdown in the talks was an unpleasant surprise. Other negotiations dealing with non-wage issues had been resolved in a satisfactory manner and there appeared to be a good feeling on all sides.

While all details of the offers and counteroffers have not been made public, the two sides obviously are far apart. The police reportedly had been seeking merit raises of about 4.75 percent, plus cost-of-living hikes to make up for the years without.

What the city offered has not been disclosed, but it is no secret that the city once again is facing tough budget problems. City financial officials already are predicting a $2.5 million gap between revenues and expenses for next year.

No one wants to have the police go without some pay increases. Society depends heavily on them, and their dangerous job makes them deserving of decent pay scales. Budget shortfall must not be resolved every year at the expense of police officers.

When it comes to budgeting, the principle of first things first should apply. And there ought to be no argument that police protection ranks very high on the priority list.

However, at a time when budgets are tight, police should recognize the city's financial problems as well. Both sides must avoid "demands" and throwing down gauntlets with the attitude of "that's it."

Negotiation means give and take, compromise, a willingness to change. Let's forget the public posturing and get back to the bargaining table.