The personal consequences are dire indeed for the five Nahariya policemen whose plot to combat the local crime boss with explosive charges has been foiled and exposed. Their promising careers in a prestigious unit are over. They face prosecution, stiff sentences and likely imprisonment. Last week, when headlines warned of impending shocking revelations of cops gone bad, it had been assumed that we were in for another installment in the series of corruption scandals that have rocked the force. Those scandals culminated last February in the Zeiler Commission's scathing report, which precipitated the resignation of then-commissioner-general Moshe Karadi. They shared a sinister common denominator - officers, motivated by greed, had crossed the lines and collaborated with underworld kingpins, either by spilling classified information, selling weaponry or perverting the course of justice. Thursday's disclosures were very different. The Nahariya five's resort to illegal means was not aimed at aiding and abetting the commission of felonies but constituted a misconceived and deplorable effort to thwart the criminals. They were not abusing the law for personal gain. Police who employ illegal methods - even in the belief that they are defending of law and order - place themselves outside the pale of tolerable conduct. But on a societal plane, their resort to illegality behooves us to engage in some earnest collective soul-searching. Before us essentially are law-enforcers who adopted criminal modus operandi for the expressed purpose of fighting crime. Colloquially these men "took the law into their own hands." They became vigilantes. A vigilante is one who enacts his own form of justice in response to insufficient or inept protection by the authorities. Vigilantism grows in dark seamy recesses where anarchy reins. The five veteran investigators who allegedly opted to physically remove or intimidate Nahariya organized crime linchpin Michael Mor were convinced that without that kind of drastic remedy he would continue to terrorize them and their families. Despite multiple threats and even grenades tossed into the officers' homes, no action was or could be taken against Mor. The five ultimately came to feel that it was "us or him." Plainly and most distressingly, these law enforcers had lost all faith in the power of their own force and the wider justice system to effectively come to their aid. What conclusions, then, are ordinary citizens to draw? If the police cannot protect their own, what protection can the wider public expect? Surveys show the public overwhelmingly sides with the officers. They are popularly perceived as local adherents to the Dirty Harry ethos. Their resort to criminal behavior would not have transpired had they and their families been protected; they had, after all, put their safety on the line for their community's sake. These men were not bad apples initially, but rather individuals charged with safeguarding the applecart. Meanwhile, Mor is fearless and prattles arrogantly to reporters. The officers' identity, by contrast, must remain under wraps for fear of gangland retribution. This very fact attests to the ongoing police failure. The wider anxieties of both officers and the citizenry they are sworn to protect are confirmed by statistics. In 1996 there were 104 murders in Israel. This year to date, the figure already touches 400. Yet the number of policemen per 1,000 people in Israel is the lowest in the Western world - lower significantly, say, than countries like peaceful Switzerland, where ordinary crime-prevention is not further encumbered by terrorist predations. Furthermore, when Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter sought to find an outsider on whom he could rely to ensure that the understaffed force at least act honorably and make best use of its limited resources, he could find no credible candidate prepared to take the challenge and had to settle for the least offensive internal candidate to succeed the ousted Karadi. The resultant crisis of confidence has engendered a sense of widespread insecurity. The citizenry watches helplessly as crime families brazenly gain strength and influence, subvert or terminate witnesses and even intimidate officers. Vigilante policemen must of course be prosecuted, but public support for them and the circumstances that led to their unacceptable actions must not be ignored. It stems from a legitimate sense of insecurity and concern about law enforcement. If ever there were a wake-up call, it is these five officers' desperate resort to criminal behavior.