Although the New Haven Police Department rolled out walking beats in each of the Elm City’s 10 districts two weeks ago, its downtown beat has been active since early December.

Proprietors at seven downtown businesses said they noticed increased police visibility in the past month, contributing to a safer commercial environment. While Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04, who represents the downtown district, said the walking beats help improve perceptions of public safety in the area, several shop owners and managers said they would welcome a greater police presence.

“The police do come in here, and I appreciate that I’ve always felt a good presence,” said Naomi Lehrer, a saleswoman at Wave Gallery on Chapel Street. “They’ve never been intimidating and have always been comforting — we approve of what the police do for us as merchants here.”

The downtown area, under the supervision of district manager Lt. Rebecca Sweeney, was the first to be assigned walking beats after NHPD Chief Dean Esserman took office in November, promising to bring back the policing strategy. New Haven followed a “community policing” approach to law enforcement in the 1990s, when Esserman was an assistant NHPD chief, but the strategy fell out of favor over the next decade.

Hausladen said he was excited to see the return of walking beats to the department’s practices. Esserman “took to the walking beat downtown on his first day,” Hausladen said, adding that he was looking forward to the results of the renewed focus on the community policing strategy.

“Getting officers out of the vehicles and engaging with the community has been the number-one improvement,” Hausladen said. “Cops in squad cars on the [New Haven] Green is not the image we want our most visible landmark to be perceived with.”

Walking beats were first implemented as part of the Elm City’s broad community policing strategy in the early 1990s, when Esserman served as NHPD assistant chief under Chief Nicholas Pastore.

Although community policing strategies were never fully phased out, NHPD spokesman David Hartman said the department has moved more to a “response and enforcement” strategy over time as officers retired and, due to budget constraints, were replaced by fewer hires. By February 2009, cops were no longer patrolling New Haven in walking or bicycle beats except downtown, he said.

The return of walking beats has particularly benefited the security of businesses around the Green, which “has a problem with drug dealers and people who might harass others” around the area, said David Tolles, a volunteer worker at Ten Thousand Villages on Chapel Street.

“Walking beats are absolutely the right way to go: they give a sense of visibility,” said Claire Criscuolo, owner of Claire’s Corner Copia on Chapel Street. “If you have 20 police cars with doors closed, windows rolled up and radios on, that’s not helpful.”

Still, Tolles said police presence “could definitely be ramped up” on Friday and Saturday nights, when “amateurs are out and spirits are high.”

Several other business owners interviewed said shoplifting remained a problem at their stores, as does the presence of panhandlers outside and in the surrounding area.

“[The NHPD] have to tackle the issue of shoplifting,” said Liz Rider, manager of Ten Thousand Villages. “A lot of the time, the people doing it aren’t people off the street: One of the biggest demographics of shoplifters is Yale female undergraduates.”

While Rider said one officer came in and introduced himself as part of the walking beat soon after Esserman assumed his post, the officer has only visited twice. Part of the NHPD officers’ job should be “coming in and saying hi on a regular basis,” she added.

Each of the NHPD’s 425 officers will also walk a beat in some fashion, regardless of rank, Esserman said at a Jan. 26 press conference at the Newhallville police substation.

In his State of the City address at City Hall on Monday, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is expected to propose the addition of 40 to 45 new NHPD officers to help the department implement its new community policing strategy.