Editorial: Good riddance to the flashing blue lights. But the Loop still needs police officers out of their cars.

Of all the policing decisions in Chicago, few were as clueless as former police Chief David Brown’s so-called Strategic Deployment Initiative. That was the fancy name for the decision to park squad cars in high-profile locations like Michigan Avenue, Oak Street or outside the Nederlander Theatre in the North Loop at curtain time, turn on the blue lights and let the officer coddled in the warm driver’s seat collect some nice overtime.

The theory was that the police presence would deter criminals and make residents and visitors feel safer. The dystopian reality was that you would come around the corner, see the flashing blue lights, worry there was some kind of major incident waiting in your path and feel far less safe than you did before.

The so-called scarecrow police cars occasionally were empty by design, but mostly a single officer sat there removed from everything going on outside the car doors.

No “Good evening,” no “How are you, tonight?” no “Welcome to Chicago,” no “Is there anything worrying you right now?”

If a major crime had been committed, we don’t doubt the officer would have reacted and, over the last few months, we occasionally saw a police officer on the sidewalk instead of inside his or her car. But on an everyday basis, these police officers, often from different districts, felt like they were hermetically sealed off from the world outside. They were unapproachable.

Clearly, a much better plan would have been to station a couple of officers on foot, or maybe even horseback, which is precisely what routinely happens in and around Times Square in New York. Those police officers chat with folks, keep an eye on potential terrorist activity, look out for other kinds of trouble, build some trust with the public, pose for selfies and maybe even help recruit a few kids with an interest in becoming officers themselves. Safety is as much about perception as reality, especially in terms of how it affects businesses reliant on visitors unused to everyday life in a big city like Chicago.

So we were glad to see Chicago’s new police Chief Larry Snelling tell the Chicago Sun-Times he is getting rid of the initiative. We were less glad to see him apparently worrying more about overtime costs than the serious limitations of the prior program.

Making people feel safe downtown is an excellent use of his budget: a couple of known police officers patrolling Jeweler’s Row in the Loop the other day might just have deterred a shocking and fatal ambush of two teenagers. And we know of no downtown business that is looking to have less police presence outside their doors. Not right now.

What do those restaurants, stores and theaters want instead? Better — and more engaged — police presence, achieving more goals at once.

By all means, Chief Snelling, give commanders and deputy chiefs more autonomy in the use of their budgets. But they shouldn’t just be hoarding the cash in advance of the Democratic Party convention this summer; those folks will be here and gone. They should be using it to help downtown Chicago change what has become a pernicious and destructive global perception.

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