If Capitol Heights Police Chief John Thompson could put his finger on the one recurring problem confronting his department, it would not be drugs or occasional drive-by shootings, but the small figure with large, scared eyes staring up at him.

Thompson has just begun his day with another small child lost -- and apparently no one searching for him.

The child, who appeared to be 5 or 6 years old, did not know his address or the school he attends. His voice was low and quavered so much that Thompson could not make out his name.

An hour after contacting school officials and treating the child to a meal of chicken and soda, Thompson still had not ascertained the youth's identity. He began dialing the Prince George's County Department of Social Services.

"It's not the drugs or the violence that makes my job harder, it's seeing kids like this," said Thompson, who indicated that children in his community frequently are lost or misplaced by parents who are involved in drugs and violence.

Capitol Heights is one of 19 municipal police forces in Prince George's County that operates separate from the county police department. Like many small-town forces throughout the state, its duties include handling reports of stolen cars, giving out parking tickets and making drug arrests in a locality that covers seven square miles.

With primary responsibility for most crimes occurring within the town's limits, the force calls upon the county for assistance when there is a serious crime that requires additional staffing or expertise.

In large part, most of the days pass quietly in Capitol Heights, a town of 5,000 in the central portion of Prince George's bordering the District. The town, dotted by modest single-family homes and public housing, has escaped much of the violence suffered by its neighbors, Seat Pleasant and Fairmount Heights, Thompson said.

Crime logs appear to support this assertion, showing that officers were involved in only one domestic quarrel and a traffic stop one night last week. Since January, there has been one homicide, two sexual assaults and a raid at a house suspected of harboring drug dealers, Thompson said.

"We don't have a lot of violent crime in the area," Thompson said.

The seven-member Capitol Heights police force operates on an annual budget of $209,000, 21 percent of the town's operating budget. In addition to Thompson, one officer is on duty during the day, and two at night. Most joined the force after spending several years with another police department or were trained at the police academy at Prince George's Community College.

Three more officers are slated to join the force by the end of the year and the department expects that more money will be allocated in its fiscal 1992 budget for three more positions, bringing the total police strength to a dozen by the end of 1991. The department also is in the market for three police cruisers to add to the current fleet of seven.

Town Manager Fred Nocente said the town suffers a reputation of being overrun by drugs that he blames on the U.S. Postal Service. For mailing purposes, the Postal Service gives a Capitol Heights address to anything east of the town up to Interstate 95, including most of Seat Pleasant and Fairmount Heights.

"This is disturbing because we get blamed for a lot of crime that occurred within our postal address but not within" town borders, he said.

Still, Capitol Heights has had its share of crime. When Thompson took over as head of the force three years ago, several crack houses were in operation, including one just a block from Town Hall. On a nearby corner, drugs and money frequently changed hands as groups of up to 80 people congregated there daily.

Thompson, 38, launched an assault on the crack houses, raiding them and boarding them up.

"We think we've cleaned up the town," Thompson said. "We've knocked {drug dealing} down so much that we now don't have to do drug interdiction, just regular patrols will do it."

For now, the police chief just wants to find out whose little boy is missing. Using detective skills and a fatherly voice, he finally is able to coax the child into telling him his mother's name and where she works. Within minutes, he has her on the phone at her home.

Thompson, fighting back anger, tactfully inquires whether the woman has a missing son. The woman answers in the affirmative and, seemingly nonplussed, says she will be by soon to pick him up.

Thompson's frustration mounts later in the day as he answers a call from a neighboring jurisdiction about the abduction and possible rape of a 17-year-old woman. Later, he responds to a call about a teenager allegedly breaking into cars at a Metro station parking lot.

But Thompson said his frustration propels him into spending his free moments visiting area elementary schools and talking to children about staying out of trouble.

"The town is like a big family," he said. "The county police department doesn't have time to come out and do the things that we can do."