Riverdale police Sgt. Billy Dunn arrived at the International House of Pancakes before dawn a few weeks ago, just as a patron left without paying for his meal.

Alerted by a restaurant employee, Dunn gave chase in his cruiser, a used Maryland State Police car with 95,000 miles on the odometer. The speedometer pushed past 80, 90, 100 miles an hour as the officer raced up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in pursuit of the alleged check-walker. And then, as Dunn was gaining on the fleeing automobile, his exhaust pipe fell off.

"It is a hair-raising experience, I can tell you for sure, to have your car come apart when you're going 110 miles per hour," Dunn said. "I don't mind admitting that I was shaken."

In all, it is not easy being a Riverdale police officer.

A modest town of 5,800 residents near the District line, Riverdale is one of 19 Prince George's County municipalities with police departments separate from the county police system.

Officers on the 12-member force are faced with big-city crimes that range from drug-dealing to murder; their working conditions, however, are strictly small-town:The police station is two construction trailers hitched together; a proposal to build a new station has stalled without architectural plans or funds to pay for it. "New" squad cars are purchased used from the Maryland State Police with about 70,000 miles on the odometer. The majority of the cars, according to the officers, have 90,000 to 120,000 miles on them.

Three of the department's seven operable cars were out of service this week, awaiting repairs. An eighth, wrecked last October, sits behind the station. The Town Council tried unsuccessfully in June to dismantle the dispatching operation and join the county's 911 emergency response system but was dissuaded by citizens who argued that a local dispatcher provided quicker police service. Officers who had life insurance equal to a year's salary -- between $18,600 and $23,000 -- lost that protection last month when the town canceled its pension plan. Officials say that they soon will have a new pension plan with life insurance.

In the meantime, officers receive the same $5,000 life insurance coverage awarded to other town employees.

To top it off, the town's major crime problem, the prostitutes who work the east side of Kenilworth Avenue, is just beyond the town limits and the short arm of the Riverdale law.

"They drive us crazy running back and forth across the street," said Officer Mark Harding. "Usually, they take off when they hear these rattle-trap cars coming."

All this adds up to strained relations between the police and their employers, the mayor and Town Council.

"If you want the truth," said Chief Alfred T. Barcenas, who likens himself to John Wayne, "they're trying very hard to get rid of my department and everyone in it, starting with me. They figure if they make things bad enough everybody will quit and then they can fire me."

Mayor Ann Ferguson, who notes that the police department receives roughly one-third of the town's $1.5 million budget, said the force, a fixture in the town since 1930, is there to stay. She is less sanguine, however, about Barcenas.

"Do I want to get rid of him?" Ferguson said. "As tempting as it would be to be candid, I feel that this is a personnel matter best not discussed."

The chief has careened from one controversy to the next since his appointment in 1985.

Three years ago, Barcenas found himself in an embarrassing jam after he told a reporter that Circuit Court Judge Jacob S. Levin, who had been stopped for driving without headlights and given a sobriety test, which he passed, was working undercover to test police procedures. The story was a fabrication that Levin and others immediately refuted.

Shortly after that Barcenas was investigated for fixing tickets and selling confiscated weapons.

He ultimately was exonerated by the state prosecutor's office.

Barcenas said he saw the investigation as a failed attempt to get him out of office.

"It is absurd to think that I would try to get rid of the department to get rid of him," Ferguson said. "And that's all I want to say on the matter, except . . . 'stay tuned.' "