TLANTA, Nov. 29— They say that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. In the case of Beverly Harvard, it proved to be a fortuitous thing as well.
Chief Harvard, the new head of the Atlanta Police Department, said that had she known 21 years ago that the tests she would have to take to become a police officer would be arduous, grueling and take two months, she probably would not have attempted them. She took them in response to a challenge -- a $100 bet that she would fail -- from her husband and a family friend who was skeptical about a woman's capacity to do the job.
Ignorance being bliss, Ms. Harvard, who at the time was a 22-year-old recent graduate of Morris Brown College, here in Atlanta, with a degree in sociology, took up police work. And last week, when the Atlanta City Council confirmed her Oct. 26 appointment as Atlanta's chief of police, she became, at age 43, one of only three women to head a major police department and the only black woman ever to rise to that position. (Betsy Watson served as police chief of both Houston and Austin, Tex., and Penny Harrington was chief some years ago in Portland, Ore.) There is no determined plotting or pioneering zeal from childhood to limn her story. And where she could have mythologized herself after the fact, she has chosen to stick with the self-effacing tale of the naif in the wonderland of new opportunities for women.
This approach is part of her disarming style, forged initially from a combination of cautiousness and canniness born of being a woman manager in a profession dominated by men. But it is also a result of her concluding at some point in her career that she didn't really have to prove anything to anybody.
"It was 1973, and my husband, Jimmy, and a friend of his were talking about how the women who might be suited to be police officers had to be 6 foot 2 inches tall, weigh 200 pounds and have deep voices," said the raspy-voiced Chief Harvard, who is considerably smaller (but would not say how much smaller).
"I thought they were being ridiculous, and I was upset because my husband didn't defend me and women in general more, and I just wanted to get this piece of paper and wave it in their faces. If I had known then all that was involved, I wouldn't have done it, but nobody told me."
On a recent day in her spacious office here at Police Headquarters, Chief Harvard said that before starting her police academy training, her first assignment, working in communications and hearing the excitement crackling from the walkie-talkies and over the 911 emergency lines, led her to think more seriously about police work. Some months later, halfway into her training, she was sold on a police career.
She said she quickly learned back then that planning, crime analysis, research and social work were all a part of police work, and suddenly the job looked like a career that went beyond locking up the bad guys.
As sun streamed in through the large office windows, glinting off the polished gold buttons of her dark-blue dress uniform accented with the gold braid of her rank, Chief Harvard handled a slew of telephone calls. The subjects ranged from appointments of ranking officers to replace those who took early retirement to plans for a test of emergency communications equipment to an upcoming City Council hearing on public safety.
The office, with its gleaming, stained oak paneling and view of midtown Atlanta, is a far cry from her hometown of Macon, Ga., 85 miles south, where she was raised in a sheltered environment with little knowledge of the police or of crime. She was the youngest of seven children, with siblings old enough to have children of their own, and as such she was "babied" more than most children, she said.
That babying continued somewhat into her marriage and her first years on the force, when her husband, an employee of Delta Airlines, began trailing her and her male partner on their night patrols. He stopped, she said good-naturedly, after seeing that there was no "danger lurking around every corner" and after she convinced him that it would hurt her standing in the department if word about what he was doing got out.
After two years of walking a beat and doing street patrols, she lost much of that sheltered innocence and quickly moved on to other areas of police work, where she built a reputation as a trained manager and administrator.
Over the next 21 years, she supervised a variety of units, from criminal investigation to administrative services, and served as the department's affirmative action officer and its liaison during the 1983 investigation of a number of missing and murdered children. In a department where salaries have stagnated, equipment has aged and budgets have been squeezed, she has the kind of varied bureaucratic and managerial experience that some say has given her a reputation for getting more out of less.
Younger officers in the department talk glowingly of Chief Harvard, who has a master's degree in public administration from Georgia State University, as someone who can appreciate the ideas of the newer, more educated recruits.