Thousands of extra police officers will be needed to flood the streets during contentious parades if a High Court ruling on loyalist flag protests is not overturned, the Chief Constable has warned.
Last month's ruling by Mr Justice Treacy that police wrongly facilitated illegal and sometimes violent loyalist flag protest marches is to be appealed by the PSNI.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott told the Belfast Telegraph that if the appeal was lost then the PSNI would "have to reflect upon our ability to stop thousands of people marching down the street... it could be that many, many, many more officers are required".
When pushed on the number of officers that may be needed, he replied "possibly thousands".
"It is not just about the one march. It is about the other marches that will then follow," said Mr Baggott.
He insisted that the Army would definitely not be called in for assistance under his watch as Chief Constable.
Mr Baggott revealed that in one night last year police had to deal with 84 protests and riots all at the same time. "That is the scale our tactics will have to deal with," he said.
There was a series of loyalist parades in late 2012 and early 2013 after Belfast City Council decided to restrict the number of days it would fly the Union flag over City Hall.
A resident from the mainly nationalist Short Strand area took a court action against the PSNI over how it policed those early loyalist parades.
The resident, whose identity was not made public, claimed he had been left besieged by serious disorder and that the police had not done their duty. High Court Judge Mr Justice Treacy upheld his complaint last month.
The PSNI's appeal against this ruling has been fast-tracked to next month as it involves issues of operational importance ahead of the marching season.
More than 800 police officers were injured on duty as a result of the flag protests and related violence, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI) said during its conference yesterday.
"That is a shocking statistic. Almost a quarter of all frontline officers injured. They sustained wave after wave of brutal attacks," said Terry Spence, chairman of the PFNI. Mr Spence raised concerns over resources and warned that the PSNI was "vastly under-strength" with 6,700 officers. Recruitment has been reopened, with a fresh campaign launched yesterday.
The PSNI wants to recruit more than 700 officers over the next two years, in a bid to increase the organisation's strength to a minimum establishment level of 7,000.
However, Justice Minister David Ford warned yesterday that achieving the minimum establishment figure would be subject to funding considerations.
"You can be assured that I will continue to do all I can to champion the resource needs of the PSNI. However if, as anticipated, the 1.5% funding cut for DOJ [Department of Justice] comes to pass, an in-year cut to the PSNI budget will be unavoidable," he said.