DEPUTY Commissioner Kevin Bethel didn't know it at the time, but by doing his job he had changed the course of someone's life.

As an officer in the 6th District, headquartered in Chinatown, Bethel recalled picking up a corner boy while out on patrol one night.

Instead of lambasting the youth, Bethel spent an hour lecturing him to strive to do better. Bethel didn't see him again after that night until the same man approached him 10 years later at a church and thanked him for saving his life that night.

"He told me, 'Since that night I got saved and started my own business,' " Bethel recalled.

It's that sort of commitment that cops and community leaders say defines the 44-year-old West Philly native who joined the force in 1986.

"He has a passion for young people, especially males," said Officer Donita Nesmith, who has known Bethel since they graduated from the Police Academy more than 20 years ago. "He's about trying to get them on the right track."

Tonight, Bethel will accept the 23rd annual Fencl Award at Swan Caterers in South Philadelphia.

The Fencl Award - named for George Fencl, the civil-affairs inspector who served as the unit's commanding officer in the 1960s - is presented yearly by the Daily News to a Philadelphia police officer who best exemplifies the dedication, fairness and honor that Fencl brought to the job.

The winner is chosen by a 16-member committee.

"All I want to do is change the quality of life for people," he said. "And I'm being honored for it."

Joan Fencl, the wife of George Fencl, who sits on the voting panel, said she voted for Bethel because of the array of people who wrote in and vouched for him.

"He did a lot of work for the children and the people down there," she said. "That's what I liked about him."

Other honorees include Officer Juan "Ace" Delgado, of the 3rd District, headquartered at 11th and Wharton streets, and the late Officer Chuck Cassidy, of the 35th District, in Fern Rock.

Delgado was named a finalist for his work in bridging gaps between different racial and ethnic groups in South Philadelphia. Cassidy was gunned down during a robbery at a West Oak Lane Dunkin' Donuts last October.

"We're all winners," said Bethel. "I'm very humble to be in that selection of officers."

Bethel, a father of three daughters ages 4, 7 and 18, a husband to a police detective, and a mentor to an 11-year-old has his hands full, but says that he willingly gives of himself to those who need it.

"There are people who have my three e-mail addresses, my phone number and my BlackBerry," he said. "So if they need me, they can reach me.

"Even if you can't do anything for them, at least they know you're there for them."

He no longer patrols the streets - most days begin at 7 a.m. and consist of meetings, phone calls and paperwork - but Bethel still drives through the familiar South Philly blocks he'd come to know during his days as a young "musclehead" cop.

He now oversees districts from Center City to South Philadelphia and a division of the Narcotics Strike Force, he said.

A big load, he said, but he still finds time to attend community meetings. "I love South Philadelphia. The people have been good to me." He recalls the numerous phone calls he received from residents after his mother died.

The stocky one-star deputy rose through the ranks of the department after leaving the 6th District, 11th and Winter streets, in the early 1990s. He was promoted to sergeant and went to the 17th District in South Philadelphia for a short time before being assigned to the Narcotics Strike Force.

He was promoted to lieutenant, moved to Internal Affairs for less than a year and then returned to the Narcotics Unit. In December 2005, he was promoted to captain and assigned to the 17th District.

Last month, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey - with whom many people think Bethel shares a resemblance - promoted Bethel to Deputy Commissioner of Regional Operations Command South, or ROC South.

"I am in heaven," he said one recent afternoon in his office at the Naval Yard in South Philly. From his chair, he looked out at the large metallic warships that sat on the sparkling water.

"If you would have told me 22 years ago I would be here, I would have said, 'Wow!' " he reflected. *