IT WAS a joke. It had to be a joke.

That was the only thought that entered Officer Richard "Butch" Riddick's mind last week when he was told by the Daily News that he was the winner of the 25th annual George Fencl Award.

The award, Riddick thought, only went to commanders or community-relations officers. He has spent most of his 12-year career working the not-so-glamorous burglary-and-robbery detail in Southwest Philadelphia's gritty 12th District.

This was no joke, though. Riddick, 56, is the man leaders and Fencl Award board members thought most followed in the footsteps of the late civil-affairs Chief Inspector George Fencl, who distinguished himself decades ago as a compassionate yet fearless cop.

"I was really surprised, almost misty-eyed, when I found out," Riddick said. "It's a prestigious award. I always say to my wife, Joyce, 'I'll never win. I'm just a street cop.' "

Indeed, street cops are often overlooked. They don't generate headlines or hold news conferences. But the impact they can have on a community is unique; a good street cop can make people trust the Police Department.

A Southwest Philadelphia bar owner who nominated Riddick for the Fencl Award said that the veteran cop has helped the owner keep drug-dealers away from his building.

"He is our hero because he can help us save our community one block at a time," the owner wrote.

Riddick said that he was taught by his older brothers, Eddie Riddick and Eric Riddick - both also Philly cops - to listen, patiently, to city residents who express concern about crime and their neighborhoods.

"A lot of people are afraid of cops," Riddick said. "I try to talk to everyone. My philosophy is, you can get more done with a little bit of honey than vinegar."

Highway Patrol Sgt. Mike Walton and 12th District Lt. George Holcombe were named Fencl Award finalists.

Walton, 54, is a 20-year veteran of the force. He also worked for the city for nine years in the Department of Public Property as a registered architect, during which he designed the base of the famous LOVE statue.

Being selected as a Fencl finalist is "a prestigious feather in the cap, to say the least," Walton said.

Walton was nominated by his brother George, 72, who is suffering from kidney failure. Mike Walton said he intends to donate one of his kidneys to his brother.

"He is sacrificing part of his body to save my life, and putting his promotion in jeopardy to do so," George Walton said.

A Southwest Philly resident who nominated Holcombe described the support he provided when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "He was concerned for my well-being," the woman wrote. "He sat down with me and told me to fight!"

Holcombe, 38, has spent 18 years on the force. He described being selected as a Fencl finalist as "the greatest form of recognition I could receive, because it's from the public I serve."