A Cry From the Capital

WASHINGTON, D.C., has more police per capita than any United States city. But it also has more murders per capita. Drug wars in Washington's toughest neighborhoods have claimed more than 450 lives in two of the past three years; this year's total of 378 may match those grim numbers.

The crime and violence have reached such a level in the nation's capital that last week Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly asked President Clinton to send in the National Guard. Saying her police force is overwhelmed, Ms. Kelly wants 500 military police as part of an overall anticrime strategy. Guard units would not have authority to make arrests, but their presence would make a statement about law and order in these neighborhoods - as in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots in South-Central.

Kelly, criticized for being ineffective on crime, doubtless has a political incentive for calling the Guard. But that does not mean conditions on the streets there, and in other US cities, do not warrant drastic action. In one sense, it doesn't matter whether the National Guard is used: That troops have even been sought speaks volumes. Statistics show overall crime in the US is down from the 1980s, but that violent crime is rising. Kelly's demand that 14-year-olds in Washington be tried as adults attests to the kind of violence urban areas face: more kids with more guns willing to commit acts in a scale and degree of atrocity unheard of in an earlier period.

Local officials, even the president, are cool to the idea of using the Guard. Practical problems - the length of the Guard's stay, its state of training, the propriety of calling the Guard when 300 positions on the capital's police force are unfilled - have been raised. Yet the idea is very popular in the neighborhoods affected.

Is there a crime ``chill in the air'' - as the New York Times has put it? Tourist slayings in Florida, carjackings, violence in schools, and recent urban and racial riots suggest a serious problem. It is not out of moralistic or Victorian sentiments that US Attorney General Janet Reno is seeking to take legal action against TV networks that broadcast shows with high levels of gratuitous violence.

City chaos should be met via root causes: family breakup, inequity, disinterest. In the short term, a show of force may be needed in the capital. However, the National Guard should not become a new ``911'' for US mayors.

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