Time to toot the old whistle this morning. Seems a couple of Washington's finest aren't operating in the manner prescribed by the book.

The scene was the Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken restaurant at 409 8th St. SE., at 5 p.m. on June 15. John Means, a copy editor at The Post, was waiting at the counter for his order when two policemen entered.

They walked up to the counter, where they were greeted by a smiling uniformed worker. As Means watched, the men were each handed a box-of-chicken lunch and a cold drink -- for which they did not pay.

The counter worker then produced a clipboard and copied down the two men's badge numbers. Each policeman signed opposite his "figures." None of the three principals in the drama in any way tried to conceal what they were doing. Finally, with a "thanks" and a "see you later," the policemen were gone.

Now, let's not be blushing babes about this. It's clearly in the interest of both Popeye's and the two policemen to have a free lunch arrangement. It's relatively cheap extra protection for the restaurant, and it's a couple of bucks saved for the cops.

Just as clearly, free meals for law enforcement officers have been doled out -- and accepted -- for a long time, here as well as elsewhere. Cops I know justify it by saying that two bucks worth of chicken doesn't and couldn't compromise their integrity. Their job is to enforce the law and preserve the peace -- and they'd do both at Popeye's even if they'd never been given chicken there, they say.

However, rules are rules, and freebies are freebies. According to Sgt. Joe Gentile of the Metropolitan Police Department's public information office, "an officer is not supposed to accept any gratuities whatsoever." This applies to any kind of gratuity or favor from any individual or business: "any organization which they might have dealings with as a representative of the District of Columbia," in Gentile's words.

How about the view from the other side of the counter? Does Popeye's think it's doing anything improper?

"To us, it's just good public relations," says Popeye's D.C. chief of operations Don Walker. "It's a deterrent, and we've found it's effective."

Isn't Popeye's aware that giving free chicken to police officers is a violation of the department's general orders?

"No, that's up to them," says Manny Walker, Don's father and the president of the seven Popeye's outlets in the Washington area. "I have no problem with it either way. It's just a company policy. We do it all over the country.

"We operate in very high crime areas . . . . If the police pass through there, it's all the better.

"We ask nothing in return. I wish I could. I have $200 in parking tickets."

Manny Walker was kidding about the parking tickets. But he might not have been -- and that's precisely the danger.

Whenever a police officer accepts a favor, he invites his benefactor to ask a favor of him. Very likely, it would take more than a wing, a drumstick and a medium Coke to corrupt a D.C. cop. But why run the risk of finding out? The department's rules are not only the rules, but they make sense.

Oh, yes. The cops that John Means saw.

He didn't get their names. But their vehicle was labeled "Crime Scene Search." And their license number was 79027.

Your move, police brass.