CLEVELAND (AP) _ The dealer promised up to $3,700 for protection while he bought and sold drugs, an offer the FBI says 44 police officers, sheriff's deputies and prison guards gladly accepted.

The dealer, it turned out, was an undercover FBI agent making bogus sales. In a huge bust Wednesday, authorities arrested the officers and charged them all with conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years to life in prison.

``Today has been a very difficult day in law enforcement,'' said Van Harp, the agent in charge of the FBI's Cleveland office. The probe ``really turned back on law enforcement itself.''

Those arrested include police from Cleveland, East Cleveland, Cleveland Heights and Brooklyn, plus one deputy, 24 corrections officers and a former corrections officer from Cuyahoga County.

Each took part in at least one of 16 staged deals between November 1996 and this month, the FBI said. An East Cleveland officer was late to one deal because he was giving an anti-drug presentation.

The arrests are the latest in a string of police corruption cases across the country, from Washington, New Orleans and Philadelphia to Indianapolis and Chicago. Allegations against officers in the past two years include murder, extortion, assault, framing suspects and attempted robbery.

In Cleveland, Mayor Michael White said he has suspended the city officers without pay.

``We're talking about a police division in the city of Cleveland with over 1,800 people,'' he said. ``Yes, it is frustrating and disappointing. But it in no way reflects on the entire division of men and women who serve all of us on a daily basis.''

Eight other people were arrested on conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

The sting grew out of an organized crime investigation that began in 1995, Harp said. Fifteen people have been arrested and charged with actually distributing the drugs and with other counts.

The FBI said it began to put together the conspiracy case against the officers in October 1996 when an undercover agent met Michael Joye, a Cuyahoga County corrections officer who was fired a few months later.

According to an FBI affidavit, Joye sold cocaine to an undercover agent and offered protection. The affidavit quotes Joye extensively, sometimes boasting about the people he recruited.

``We're the toughest gang on the street. That's how we look at it,'' the affidavit quotes Joye as saying.

FBI Director Louis Freeh said the arrests erode public confidence in the police.