When the District of Columbia considered hiring New Orleans Police Superintendent Richard Pennington as the capital's police chief, city officials in New Orleans did everything they could to keep him happy where he was.

That included the offer of a four-year contract with a pay raise of 50 percent, to $150,000, making him New Orleans' highest paid city employee. "I was really flattered," Pennington said of the competition for him. "I didn't want to start a bidding war. But when my mayor said he would match whatever Washington was offering, that made me feel very comfortable."With crime rates falling dramatically in many places around the country and a strong economy bolstering efforts by local governments to improve services, candidates for police chief with a proven record of success have become municipal superstars.

Like free agents in baseball, they are intensely recruited and highly paid - whether by the cities that lure them away or the cities that keep them in place.

The police chiefs are benefiting from plummeting crime rates across the country, though the reasons for the decline are the subject of debate. Some experts have cited other factors - including an aging criminal population and the weakening of the crack epidemic - as having more impact on crime statistics than police work has.

Nonetheless, a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, which helps local governments find candidates for police chief, found that 25 percent of chiefs in cities with at least 50,000 people earned annual salaries of more than $100,000. One of the highest-paid chiefs, Bernard C. Parks, who replaced Willie L. Williams last year in Los Angeles, is paid more than $200,000.

Perhaps no candidates find themselves more coveted than a police chief or a second-in-command who can say that his strategies of community policing helped drive down crime rates. With murder rates dropping by as much as a third in some cities, like New York and Minneapolis - although for reasons that remain the subject of heated debate - police chiefs have become heroes in their cities with popularity ratings as high as any in the local government.