AS THREE young men beaten and kicked by police in a car-stop arrest captured on videotape face a court hearing today, police officials have changed their account of the shooting they say led to the trio's arrest.

The day after Fox News showed as many as 15 officers kicking and punching the men after they were pulled from their car, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said narcotics officers on surveillance saw the three suspects and a fourth man emerge from their car and walk toward 4th and Annsbury streets, where a group of people had gathered.

The fourth man fired at the group and then fled on foot, Ramsey said, and police units tracked down the three others who had left in the car.

Now, police say that there was no fourth man and that 19-year-old Pete Hopkins, one of the three who were beaten and arrested, fired the shots that wounded three men on the corner before police pursued the vehicle.

The new revelations show how 10 days after the videotaped violence that cast Philadelphia in a bad light around the world first surfaced, investigators are still struggling to explain what happened and why.

"So that's their story now - that's convenient," said attorney D. Scott Perrine, who represents Hopkins.

"The police commissioner himself said there is a fourth random shooter who runs off. Now, all of a sudden, we hear this allegation," Perrine said. "It's absurd. These are highly trained surveillance officers and they claim they can't even count the number of people who emerge from a car."

Perrine has maintained that none of the three - Hopkins, Dwayne "Lionel" Dyches and Brian Hall - was involved in a shooting. Perrine said he believes police "fabricated" their account to cover up the real motive for the arrest and beating: That officers mistakenly believed they'd cornered Eric Floyd, then the only suspect still at large in the shooting death of police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski.

None of the police-radio transmissions mentions Floyd, according to Anthony DiLacqua, chief inspector of Internal Affairs.

"There is no information that I know of that they thought it was Eric Floyd," DiLacqua said.

Initially, 19 officers identified in the video were put on desk duty. Since then, nine of the 19 have been placed back on the street because their roles in the arrest were minimal, DiLacqua said yesterday.

Both Internal Affairs and the District Attorney's Office, with the FBI looking on, are investigating the incident. And the officers seen on the tape kicking, stomping and striking the men could face criminal charges, DiLacqua said.

The video, filmed by a Fox 29 news helicopter, has been widely shown on national television, evoking some outrage and presenting an early leadership test for Mayor Nutter and Ramsey.

While the three men face charges for the alleged shooting, prosecutors investigating possible criminal charges against the arresting officers will have to sort out conflicting accounts and information, some of which supports the alibis of the defendants.

Among the puzzling aspects of the story:

_ Two of the three men who police say were shot by the three suspects have told the Daily News they couldn't positively identify the suspects and never saw the gold Mercury Grand Marquis that police said the men emerged from and fled in afterward.

However, investigators might question their accounts because two of the three victims have criminal records and may fear retaliation.

_ Eldridge Suggs, an attorney for Dyches, has said that when the shootings occurred, Hall, Hopkins and Dyches were visiting the home of Sheila Coach, whose son Andrew had been killed May 4.

Sheila Coach told the Daily News that the three men arrived at her home on Raymond Street, which was around the corner from the shooting scene, at about 9 p.m.

She said she wasn't sure if Hall, Hopkins and Dyches were still there at about 10 p.m., when the shooting began, because her house was packed with family and friends. But Suggs said two of Coach's neices will testify that the three men were standing with them outside the house when shots rang out.

_ The absence of a fourth suspect makes even more perplexing the fact that police didn't recover the gun used in the shooting. Ramsey said police "never lost contact" with the three, "so they are the ones involved." An undercover cop and a civilian witness say they saw Pete Hopkins pull the trigger, Ramsey said.

DiLacqua said his information is that Hopkins "walked toward an alley" before getting back into the car and had "ample opportunity" to ditch a weapon. But a police search of the area did not turn up a gun, he said.

_ It's unclear what kind of pursuit preceded the beating and arrest of the men, and whether they fled police.

The video shows the car pulling slowly onto the shoulder of the road, with two patrol cars immediately behind and another parked facing the Grand Marquis.

DiLacqua said police were "following in safe, yet close, proximity and that went on for a handful of minutes so it was certainly a pursuit. [The driver] was fleeing and eluding police before the arrival of the police car in the opposite direction."

None of the three is charged with fleeing the police or resisting arrest.

Hall, 23, the driver and owner of the Marquis, works at a Wal-Mart in Northeast Philadelphia and has no prior criminal record. Both Hall and his attorney, Evan T.L. Hughes, have declined comment.

Of the three men, Hopkins has the most serious criminal record. Hopkins was first arrested at age 13. He has juvenile convictions on weapons offenses and drug dealing, records show.

Yesterday, Ramsey emphatically disputed allegations of a cover-up.

"If there are people who have witnessed the shooting and have information to the contrary, then they should come forward with that information. In the meantime, three guys got shot and they sure as hell didn't shoot themselves."

Detectives believe the shooting was in retaliation for the murder of Andrew Coach. Coach was shot to death on May 4 and his body was dumped in a driveway that runs parallel to N. Orianna Street, between Wingohocking and Cayuga. Both the shooting victims and the three suspects were friends of Andrew Coach.

Brandon Crow, 24, was shot four times. He said he and his friends were hanging on the corner when about 10 guys and at least one girl approached, apparently coming from a memorial for Coach. One of the men asked if they knew anything about Coach's death. Deangelo White, who was shot once, said "no" and the shooter didn't believe him and opened fire, Crow said.

Both White and Crow said they didn't know who shot them and didn't see a Marquis in the area.

But Crow and his father, Donald Crow, don't rule out that the arrested men may have been the shooters.

Brandon Crow said he took off running when the first shots rang out. He said that he collapsed a few blocks away and police officers descended upon him, striking him with pistol butts and kicking him in the area of his bullet wounds. Then they realized he was a shooting victim.

"I was talking to the cops, like, 'Man, that was crazy, you guys beat me up,' and they were like, 'Well, tensions are running high. [The officers] might have thought that you was that Floyd guy or that Floyd guy was in the area,' " Brandon Crow said.

DiLacqua said Crow was interviewed by detectives and never mentioned being beaten by police.

Yesterday, the family of Pete Hopkins, joined by State Rep. Curtis Thomas and community leaders, said they believe that the mayor and the commissioners are not taking complaints of police brutality seriously.

Nutter pointed out that as a city councilman, he started the Police Advisory Commission, a city-funded police watchdog group.

"I disagree with the behavior I saw on the tape. I disagree with people who shoot people on the streets of Philadelphia," Nutter said. "When we have more definitive view on what happened on the police side, I'll have something to say about that." * "