ANOTHER NIGHT, another District child struck down by a stray bullet. As with 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie, who was killed in Northeast Washington three weeks ago, this 12-year-old Northwest D.C. girl had not placed herself in harm's way. The latest victim of indiscriminate gunfire, whose identity has not been disclosed, was minding her own business on the porch of her own home when a bullet struck her in the abdomen. Police say an outburst of shooting stemming from a street altercation sent the child to surgery. It was that and more. Only a reckless disregard for human life could prompt gunfire on a street filled with the sounds of children playing. The 12 shell casings found in the vicinity of the shooting are evidence of lack of concern for the innocent. The callousness with which rivals are setting out to kill each other is emblematic of a mind-set that threatens the fabric of D.C. society. Chelsea Cromartie's killing was the 13th of people age 17 or younger this year. Thus far in 2004, the District has had more child homicides than all of last year. And that's not counting Sunday night's serious wounding.

The Fourth Police District is in charge of this case, and anyone with information that can help should call 202-727-9099 or the Police Department's Crime Solvers unit at 800-673-2777. A preliminary police report said that two men riding on a red motorcycle may have been firing at a black car with one or more passengers when the girl was struck. If the circumstances of the incident are as the police have reported, that alone ought to be enough to cause even the most indifferent citizen to become involved.

The police are confident they can close this case. They are less certain, however, about how to interrupt the culture of violence that too many young people are exposed to on a regular basis both in the street and, unfortunately, in some homes. There are offenders who seem almost desensitized to violence until confronted with the reality of what they have done. That is a tragedy. We have reached the stage where youths are picking up guns and pulling the triggers without thinking about the outcome, at least until there is a fatally wounded Chelsea Cromartie or a 12-year-old rushed to surgery. By that time, it is too late.

The same criticism -- late response -- is hurled at the police every time a serious incident occurs. D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who represents the area where Sunday's shooting took place, charged the police with not doing enough to curb violence. He told The Post, "We're going to have to find a way to tell the police that they're not doing the job in the neighborhood." The fact that three youths were shot in the same block only four months ago underscores the presence of a violent element in that neighborhood. But the police alone cannot solve what ails this city. In the week ending May 15, police arrested 1,062 adults and 61 juveniles. The week before, they arrested 1,027 adults and 92 juveniles. Cops have taken 798 firearms off the streets this year -- nearly 100 guns thus far in May. But where's the help?

What precipitated Sunday's shooting or the gunshots that crashed through a window to hit Chelsea Cromartie? What causes the quick resort to violence? Where is the breakdown and why? Those are questions that residents, families and the civic community -- not the police -- must answer.