"Community policing" has become a buzzword in these crime-ridden times, but I was lucky enough to see it in practice long before anyone thought to stick a label on what is basically good, common-sense police work.

It was the mid-1950s, and I was growing up in Chevy Chase. At that time, Chevy Chase was a middle-class suburb, where most children attended Catholic schools such as Blessed Sacrament and St. John's. Most houses didn't have air conditioning. Porches were screened. Basements were unfinished. Dogs ran loose.

I never knew his first name, but I've never forgotten his face. Day and night, Sgt. Bradshaw and his patrol car were frequent visitors to my neighborhood.

The sergeant always had a smile for us children. He'd stop and toss a few balls to the boys, ask about our folks or the new baby and explain why something we were doing was dangerous -- such as standing on our sleds and zooming down the ice- and snow-covered street (which we had made icier with buckets of cold water).

One summer afternoon Sgt. Bradshaw was making his rounds along Kirkside Drive when he came upon a group of us 9- and 10-year-old girls, huddled together, whispering conspiratorially and looking down the street.

"What's going on, ladies?" he joked, poking his head out the car window.

We looked at one another and giggled in embarrassment.

Sgt. Bradshaw knew right away that something was up. He also knew most of our names, and I suppose he thought Patty was his best bet.

"Patty," he said, "is there something I should know here?"

Patty stammered an answer. A man in a green car had asked us if we wanted to see something "cute," she said.

"Uh-huh," said Sgt. Bradshaw and waited.

"We thought it was a puppy," I said, "because he reached down in the car."

Sgt. Bradshaw asked what the puppy looked like.

"It wasn't a puppy," said another girl. "It was his . . . "

"His pants were undone," blurted a 10-year-old.

"I see," said Sgt. Bradshaw calmly. "A green car, you say?"

He knew we wouldn't have any idea about the car make or model or its license plate, but we all agreed that the car was dark green.

The sergeant then asked if we noticed which way the car went. We pointed. He asked if the driver had been alone. We said yes.

Sgt. Bradshaw thanked us and said we had done the right thing in telling him about the man. Then he drove off at a sedate pace, but we heard his siren start as he turned the corner. The next day, I overheard my parents saying that Sgt. Bradshaw had caught the man in the green car after he had exposed himself to another group of children.

With the assaults and deaths of several children in the news recently, I've had cause to reflect upon Sgt. Bradshaw and the innocent summer days of my youth. Back then, whole families sometimes slept in Rock Creek Park on hot nights, and little kids played in the street, expecting the best of people, not fearing the worst. Even so, we knew when something was off without having to attend "good-touch, bad-touch" classes.

Nobody back then had heard of community policing. But Sgt. Bradshaw was an expert at it just the same. He knew how to gather information discreetly, and he protected our neighborhoods with wisdom and common sense.

The '50s weren't perfect, of course, and inflation has made our old, once unremarkable neighborhood a domain of the rich or the nearly so. But posh or not, the old neighborhood is poorer for not having a Sgt. Bradshaw of its own.

-- Beverly K. Eakman