The only mistake the policemen made, if they made any, which is still far from certain, was to do it at 5th and Spruce Streets.

Three weeks ago last night, three and a half blocks from the room in which the Declaration of Independent was promulgated and in full public view, at least five uniformed, armed, on-duty Philadelphia policemen, with three to five others watching, held and beat to unconsciousness a 23-year-old man with a personal record unblemished by any previous brush with the law.

The victim was William Cradle, an instrument technician driving from his house in the Queen Village neighborhood to pick up his wife as she finished work at 5th and Walnut Streets. Mr. Cradle went through a stop sign, was stopped by police and then, apparently frightened by a delay and the harshness of one policeman, drove on at moderate speed, stopping at a red light at the intersection where the beating took place.

Mr. Cradle may have made a mistake by driving on. Or he may not have. Some 15 minutes later, at 12:45 a.m., Friday, April 29, handcuffed, unconscious and bleeding, with injuries of his head, shoulders, back, ribs, legs and groin, he was thrown into a police wagon and taken off to jail, denied any medical attention.

According to witnesses, Mr. Cradle never raised a hand, except to try to protect himself, and uttered no words more provocative than his screams of  "Help me! . . . Somebody help me!"

Poor, foolish man.

Who on earth can help an innocent, unarmed citizen being beaten on a street by five policemen with as many more of them stand by?

Three of the witnesses were young women who were driving on the same street, and whose direct protests were ignored and ridiculed. At least four other witnesses were awakened or alerted by Mr. Cradle's screams and the noise of the policemen's blows, with fists and with nightsticks. At least two nightsticks were shattered by the force with which they struck Mr. Cradle.

Try to break a one-inch-thick hardwood rod. Try on a rock, not a human body.

Those witnesses' complaints to the Philadelphia Police Department and district attorney's office were met with indifference and score. The beating took place three weeks ago, and there has not been a single word from any city official indicating discipline or even disapproval.

The witnesses, however, were courageous and articulate and knowledgeable enough to give detailed accounts of the beating to Inquirer reporters Jonathan Neumann and William K. Marimow, and to the FBI, which now is investigating the policemen's behavior.

That is why the eight or ten policemen who were director or supportively involved in the beating may have made a mistake to do it at Fifth and Spruce Streets. That is the heart of Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood, populated by educated, prosperous, articulate people whose voices are more difficult to ignore than those of people in less illustrious neighborhoods. They are not being ignored, anyway, by the office of U. S. Attorney David Marston, a public servant independent of the political machine which sets the tone for police and other city officials' behavior.

It is consoling, certainly, that Mr. Marston and the FBI are working on the Cradle case, and working as well on evidence, published in this newspaper, of systematic illegal coercion of suspects, witnesses and innocent citizens by detectives of the city homicide division. It is to the credit of the Carter Administration that the independence Mr. Marston represents is being preserved and that the investigation is being supported.

The federal government cannot and should not attempt to police the fourth largest city in the United States – or any other. Local government, though, is maintaining a record of total public indifference to the Cradle case and all others like it.

That record makes it apparent that unless and until there is full, systematic and effective federal investigation and prosecution of illegal behavior by members of the Philadelphia Police Department and their superiors, the implicit instruction to this city's policemen is to go out and do likewise.

Do you feel safe?