It was 2:06 a.m. on Jan. 1 when D.C. homicide Detectives Bo McAllister and John Love heard the radio call. Barely two hours into the new year, the city's first shooting victim lay bleeding on a Southwest Washington sidewalk.

McAllister and Love arrived on the scene to find 19-year-old Michael Saunders Jr. sprawled near First and N streets SW. He had been shot once in the lower jaw, and the bullet had pierced his skull.

In Saunders' coat pockets the detectives found more than 60 packets of crack, a highly potent cocaine derivative. In one pocket of his faded blue jeans was a pistol. And stuffed in several coat and jean pockets was nearly $1,000 in cash.

For McAllister and Love, the body lying before them in that predawn hour was a foreshadowing of the murderous month ahead -- a month that would go down in history as the most violent one ever in this city.

Thirty-seven people were killed -- shot, stabbed, strangled or burned -- in the city last month. Their deaths broke the District's December 1971 record of 32 homicides in one month and more than doubled the number of homicides during the same month last year.

January's death toll reflects the problems that plague the city: the use of more sophisticated weapons; the increase in out-of-town drug dealers, such as Jamaicans from Miami and New York; the increase in killings of juveniles, and the explosive growth in drug sales, especially crack, in city neighborhoods.

"This drug problem is by no means unique to the District but has now reached epidemic proportions affecting the entire nation," said Larry D. Soulsby, former head of the D.C. police homicide division. "It has become a man-made plague acting as a cancer which eats away at the very fabric of our society."

However, the escalating rate of homicides in the District is coming at a time when homicide rates in several cities across the country are declining. Baltimore's homicide rate was down 5.8 percent last year, from 240 in 1986 to 226 in 1987. The killings in Boston dropped 29 percent last year to 75, compared with 106 the previous year. New York's homicides went down slightly from 1,330 in 1986 to 1,319 last year. And Miami's figure went down from 161 in 1986 to 142 last year. However, in the District, homicides climbed from 197 in 1986 to 228 last year.

In the Washington area in January, 14 homicides were committed in Prince George's County, including five deaths in a single shooting incident in Landover. One person was killed in Anne Arundel County, and one in Arlington. But no homicides were reported last month in Montgomery, Howard, Fairfax, Alexandria, Loudoun or Prince William counties.

The District's slaying rate has been gradually increasing over the past six months, and Soulsby said he is not optimistic that it will ebb until "parents, business community and church leaders come together as a whole to create an environment where the drug trade cannot flourish."

But John Lewis McAdoo, a D.C. resident, professor of the Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore and author of "Black Children: Their Social, Emotional and Educational Environments," said he nevertheless has hope.

"People in the community will get so fed up that they will begin demanding more action from their city and federal officials," said McAdoo. "It's not just the District's fault. The FBI and the {U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration} are not fulfilling their responsibility of stopping drugs from being transported over state lines."

The killings last month transcended the demographics of the city. White and black, male and female, young and old were affected, although nearly 80 percent of January's slayings were linked to illicit drugs by police.

The typical victim was a 26-year-old black man who was killed in Southeast Washington and was buying or selling drugs.

Some were slain in battles over drug dealers' turf, during arguments while they were under the influence of drugs, or because they were committing a crime to support their drug habit.

But also killed last month was a white science teacher at a private school who lived in Northwest Washington, a woman reservist with the 260th Military Police Brigade of the U.S. National Guard who may have been involved in drugs, and two handicapped boys who were repeatedly stabbed, allegedly by their father, police said.

Dwayne Stephen Barnes, 8, and Jerome Clayton Barnes, 4, both of whom had cerebral palsy and used wheelchairs, were found dead Jan. 6 in a room at the Capitol City Inn, a city-run shelter for homeless families in Northeast, where they had been living with their mother for more than 10 months.

Charged with murder in the slayings was 31-year-old Stanley Simpson, who told police that he killed his two handicapped sons and tried to kill himself because he could no longer endure the difficulties of the family's homelessness and wanted "to get back at" the children's mother, authorities said.

Four of the bodies recovered from city streets were of Jamaicans. Police said they believe that several of the other January killings are linked to Jamaicans.

Jamaican drug dealers, who are organized into gangs they call posses, are moving into the Washington area -- often from New York or Miami -- in increasing numbers, and they are linked to the local market for crack, which has overtaken PCP as the drug of choice.

"What we're seeing now is that we're getting people from the outside who are coming in and trying to take over territory from people who live here," said McAdoo.

"The way you make profits in the lucrative drug trade, as in any business, is by eliminating your competition," he said.

"And their way of eliminating their competition is shooting them in the head."

Several of the victims were brutally slain with multiple weapons -- a trend in local homicides, police say.

On Jan. 26, the body of Ralph W. Bailey Jr., a student at George Washington University, was found stuffed in a car in Northeast Washington. Bailey had been shot, stabbed, and burned on his head and in his rectum.

"Instead of two shots, you now get four or five with strangling," said Soulsby, who was promoted Sunday from homicide captain to acting inspector and night supervisor.

Only days before Bailey's body was found, 25-year-old Beverly Anita Thompson's body was found in a burning apartment at 304 Oklahoma St. NE.

She had been raped, beaten and strangled.

Some of the slayings involved highly sophisticated and dangerous firearms, reflecting the increasing numbers of semiautomatic and automatic weapons showing up on the streets of Washington.

Thomas E. Arnold, 40, was killed as he was walking with a group in front of 89 Galveston St. SW.

A car was driven up, a man jumped out with a gun, which was described by witnesses as a machine gun, and the man opened fire on the crowd.

Those weapons are finding their way into the hands of D.C. youths, who are increasingly being gunned down on the streets of Washington. Nineteen juveniles were killed last year, compared with six in 1986. Reginald Small, 15, who lived in far Southeast, is the face behind the last statistic of the month.

The youth, who had lived off and on at his grandmother's house on Condon Terrace SE and his mother's on Atlantic Street SE, was shot Sunday night near his home in what police described as a drug-related slaying. Linda Small, his mother, said Reginald's father lives in South Carolina.

"He was a good son," Small said. She said he had no problems but may have become involved with the wrong crowd.

Harriet Ford, the principal at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, where Small was an eighth grader, said yesterday that Small had been enrolled in a program for students with behavioral and emotional problems.

Ford did not elaborate on why Small was in the program but said that he was "a loner."

Ford said, "You sometimes had to remember he was 15. He didn't use slang," she said.

"He didn't talk to you like a regular junior high school student. He was polite. But the one thing I can say, that I will always remember about him, is he had a little crooked smile."

Only seven of the 37 January killings have been solved. "The cases are complicated, they're occurring frequently, and witnesses are afraid to get involved in helping us," said Soulsby.

On the last day of the month, three persons were shot to death, including Fred Parris, 43, a teacher, who was returning home with a friend early in the morning when he was gunned down in front of his house by a robber.

Yesterday, faculty members and children gathered in the gym at Sheridan School on 36th Street NW, where Parris taught for 13 years, to reflect on the dedicated science teacher they knew and loved.

It was a moving hour of tears and laughter as, one by one, they remembered the man they called a disciplined and thoughtful teacher. One teacher recalled how Parris recently telephoned her at home when he arrived at school to warn her to drive a different route because of icy roads. Another smiled when he recalled how Parris would talk in his sleep on school camping trips.

A pupil with tears streaming down her face said she felt guilty about the last time she saw Parris. He was playing basketball, and she and some of her friends had made fun of him because of his slight physique.

"It always takes something like this to appreciate someone fully," said Hugh Riddleberger, headmaster of the 60-year-old school, which enrolls about 200 pupils in classes from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Riddleberger said the school may join community efforts against guns and violence.

"We hope that out of this tragedy, we could contribute to the world becoming less violent, a safer place for children."