You couldn't help but notice the hundreds of unsupervised children hanging out in Southeast Washington on Friday night. Girls in their early teens were strolling fearlessly -- or naively -- along darkened sidewalks, some of which were bordered by wooded areas.

"Girls today are just maturing too fast," said D.C. police Lt. John Pollock, who was taking me on a tour of the 7th Police District.

We ended up asking ourselves: Where are the parents? And why would they allow girls as young as 12 to roam the streets at night?

Before long, we came upon some teenage boys seated in a row on the ground, hands cuffed behind their backs. A car that had been reported stolen was parked nearby.

"When you see them up close, you can tell they are just kids, not monsters," Pollock said.

Asked if he was concerned that elementary school-age boys were watching his officers make the arrests, Pollock said no.

"Too often they see older boys get away with stealing cars, and they grow up thinking it's okay," he said. "Now they get to see the consequences."

It's a helluva way to learn right from wrong.

Politically, the area is in Ward 8, where former mayor Marion Barry recently won the Democratic primary for a seat on the D.C. Council. Pollock, a 23-year veteran and night watch commander, was giving me a curbside view of the challenges that police and politicians face.

He nodded toward one of many groups of boys walking along a sidewalk, noting that they all were wearing oversize white T-shirts and baggy blue jeans.

"They figure that if we issue a lookout for a black male in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, we'll be confused," Pollock said, shaking his head both in admiration and despair. He is impressed by the disciplined defiance of the youths' street dress code, but he knows that it makes solving the case more difficult when one of them gets shot.

Ward 8, the city's poorest, is distinguished by a peculiar incongruity: a large memorial wall covered with photographs of homicide victims at, of all places, the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Good Hope Road SE.

During campaign stops throughout Ward 8, Barry pledged to bring jobs, pride and peace to Ward 8. But it was as if the gods were testing his resolve when, on Monday, a 13-year-old boy who lived on the same block as Barry was hit by a stray bullet and killed.

Another victim for the wall.

At one point Friday night, Pollock's police radio crackled. "We have a man in a car that has been reported stolen driving along Southern Avenue," a police officer reported. "We also have unconfirmed reports that he may have a gun."

Pollock could order a pursuit, which might lead to a dangerous high-speed chase and an exchange of gunfire. Or he could let a man who might be armed go about his business in a stolen car.

The driver settled the matter by heading out of the District and into Prince George's County. "Has anyone alerted the county?" Pollock asked.

"As we speak, sir," came the reply.

But trouble moves both ways across the D.C.-Prince George's border.

At 11 the next night, D.C. police found the body of a 16-year-old girl in the front seat of a car that had crashed into a tree in the 5300 block of Southern Avenue SE -- in the neighboring 6th Police District. Ashley Walker had been shot to death; the car she was in had been reported stolen that night in Maryland.

As he observed the children drifting and idling in the dark Friday, Pollock started talking about business signs -- those that were in the neighborhood and those that weren't.

"I see a sign for Popeye's, but I don't see a sign for a job agency," he said. "I see a sign for a liquor store, but I don't see one for a bowling alley or a movie theater. I see a sign that says, 'Get your check cashed here,' but I don't see a sign that says, 'If you are having trouble with your teenagers, bring them here for help.' "

Until some changes are made, the wall of sorrows may remain the sign that defines Ward 8.

e-mail: milloyc@washpost.com