Outside it is sweltering, but in the tiny police headquarters here Chief Leo Rodriguez sits in a crisp white shirt with a gleaming gold badge and navy blue epaulets marking his rank as head of the town's three-man law enforcement squad.

The chief is talking about police work in small Southern towns, of which Quantico (nine blocks square and pop. 621), 40 miles south of Washington, is one.

"I'm not a politician. I don't intend to be a politician," says Rodriguez, interrupting to answer the telephone. "Small towns are very, very political. You do the best you can."

The heavyset, 49-year-old chief says that petty politics drove him out of a similar job in the town of Dumfries, Quantico's minuscule neighbor two miles to the north, about 2 1/2 years ago.

"Sometimes," Rodriguez observes wryly, "it's better to move than fight city hall."

Now the heat is on again.

A $200,000 civil-rights complaint filed recently in U.S. District Court in Alexandria and naming Rodriguez, his wife and the Town of Quantico as defendants has raised questions about the politics involved in Rodriguez's hiring.

It also asks whether the chief's best is good enough, even for an aging Southern town of steadily shrinking population such as Quantico, surrounded on three sides by the sprawling Marine base of the same name.

In a wild scene last April 17, the lawsuit alleges, Rodriguez apprehended Anthony Edwards, a black 17-year-old from Woodbridge, as Edwards and a friend walked near a town cafe at about 2 o'clock in the morning. The off-duty Rodriguez, according to the complaint, was "completely drunk."

Edwards allegedly was handcuffed and his head beaten against a squad car by Rodriguez, who then "hurled" Edwards inside the vehicle.

As a crowd gathered, the complaint alleges, Rodriguez started shouting obscenities and racial slurs at the bystanders.

Rodriguez and his attorney have not yet filed a response to the complaint. But the police chief's lawyer, Barry Poretz of Washington, says that all the allegations "may be very far from the truth" and will be defended against "vigorously."

Town attorney James S.G. Turner declines to discuss the case.

Part of the time during the incident, the complaint says, Rodriguez's wife, Dee Ann, was pointing her husband's service revolver at several onlookers.

When Quantico's black police officer, Calvin Johnson, asked Rodriguez what Edwards was charged with, the complaint alleges, Rodriguez responded: "He was looking through a fence . . . . Rodriguez repeated this statement over and over, in an incoherent fashion."

Officer Johnson called Edwards' mother and had her pick up her son.

When the elder Edwards called Rodriguez the next day to ask what her son was charged with, the complaint alleges, Rodriguez told her he didn't know what she was talking about.

Two months later, in a Prince William County court, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to assaulting Edwards, according to Edwards' complaint, and sentencing was postponed for a year on condition that Rodriguez behave himself and undergo alcohol rehabilitation.

Edwards never was charged.

Edwards' lawyer, Victor M. Glasberg of Alexandria, says in court papers that Rodriguez's alleged drinking problems came as no surprise to Quantico town fathers.

The complaint charges that the five-member town council hired Rodriguez although it knew Rodriguez had lost two earlier jobs because of alcoholism.

Rodriguez was fired from positions as a Prince William County magistrate and later as Dumfries town sergeant because he "had and was known to have an alcoholism problem," the complaint alleges.

"Not accurate," declares Rodriguez's lawyer.

Records at the Virginia Supreme Court, which administers Virginia's magistrates, show only that Rodriguez was terminated in November 1978, 11 months after he took the job.

"I missed the street," says Rodriguez, explaining why he returned to police work in Dumfries.

According to Dumfries town council records, council members voted unanimously on Dec. 4, 1980, to offer Rodriguez an opportunity to resign "due to Officer Rodriguez's conduct." The council minutes give no details. Rodriguez, according to the record, turned in his badge.

In April 1981, Rodriguez was hired as a Quantico police officer and his career appeared to settle down.

Eight months later the council elected him town sergeant. Then came the alleged Edwards incident and, the complaint says, a wave of local politics.

Quantico Mayor T.A. Gianopoulos called an emergency council meeting that led to a five-day suspension, with pay, for Rodriguez, according to Edwards' complaint.

Ten days later, after Rodriguez was arrested and charged with assaulting Edwards, Gianopoulos asked the council to lift Rodriguez's badge pending the outcome of a trial on the charge.

The council balked. Invoking emergency powers, Gianopoulos did it anyway.

"Rodriguez was a town officer," says Gianopoulos, sitting at a desk in the local bus stop, which he runs. "I wanted to be fair, but I thought, 'What if it happens again? ' "

After Rodriguez's guilty plea, Gianopoulos argued heatedly that Rodriguez should be fired. The five-member town council thought otherwise, and Rodriguez was reinstated.

Within a few days, a new town council and a new mayor took office and a new position was created: chief of police.

From two candidates for the job, Rodriguez and Officer Johnson, the council picked Rodriguez.

"It's a matter for the court to decide," says council member Mitchell Raftelis, declining to get into specifics of the Edwards case. "But I wish we got publicity for some of the good things here. Quantico's a very nice town."