JUDGING FROM THE city's preoccupation with next month's local and presidential elections and the arrival of Major League Baseball, it might seem to an outside observer that the District has drawn a bead on its most pressing concerns. But has it really? Late Monday another teenager, 15-year-old Shawn J. Riley, was found dead in an automobile. His death from gunshot wounds raised the number of juveniles killed this year in the nation's capital to 22. Shawn Riley was the 16th juvenile to be killed by gunfire and the sixth to have been slain in a car. If this stunning rise in youth murders is not the District's most pressing issue, what on Earth is?
Yet, you wouldn't know that by tracking the behavior of the city's public officials, business and civic leaders, and the local faith-based community. All political eyes are focused on Mayor Anthony A. Williams's campaign to publicly finance a baseball stadium -- when he returns from his taxpayer-paid 11-day mission to China and Thailand. Other city politicians are busy positioning themselves for the upcoming Oct. 28 public hearing on the stadium building proposal. If city hall cares one whit about this spate of youth murders, it is the District's best kept secret. What is not concealed, however, is the toll these slayings have taken over the years. Shawn Riley's mother, Cornelia Robertson, said doctors told her that he was suffering from stress related to the murder of his brother and the deaths of friends. Her son, she said, told the doctors that 13 of his friends had been killed. How many adults in the District or anywhere else in America can lay claim to that?
To herald the fact that the District is on pace to record its lowest overall homicide number in nearly 20 years is to miss the current devastation of young people being killed -- and, we might add, arrested -- at a startling pace. Anytime police are arresting 9- and 10-year-old children -- and they are -- and the majority of teens being arrested for other crimes are found to have drugs in their systems, the community at large faces a dangerous undertow. Will attention from the mayor, the D.C. Council, and the business, civic and religious communities make juvenile murders go away? Of course not. Neither can the police or the families -- often badly fractured -- from which the victims come. But official inattention, if not neglect, will mean only more of the same: more young dead bodies, more yellow police tape, and grieving and torn communities -- even as the city creates a vibrant shopping and restaurant district downtown.