The cost of policing the ongoing Union flag protests in Northern Ireland has topped £20 million, senior officers have revealed.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott described the outlay as a "waste" of resources that should have been spent on tackling crime in communities.
The demonstrations have been held since early December when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the flag flies over City Hall. A number of the earlier protests descended into serious violence and rioting, particularly in east Belfast, with about 140 police officers being injured.
The demonstrations have become more sporadic and less incendiary in recent weeks, but a major criminal justice operation to bring lawbreakers to book is continuing, with almost 215 people arrested to date.
Mr Baggott and his senior officers briefed members of their oversight body - the Northern Ireland Policing Board - about the financial implications of the protests. The commanders said the total was now sitting at £20 million. "£11 million of that has been new money that we have had to provide, the rest has been (the cost of) police officers' time not being spent on the things that matter," Mr Baggott explained afterwards. I think that it's a sadness.
"That money should have been spent on tackling drug dealers, it should have been spent on officers patrolling in the heart of our most disadvantaged areas, it should have been spent on people trafficking, it should have been spent on new technology, it's been wasted dealing with disturbances and disorder that should never have happened in the first place."
In recent days, unionist politicians, the most prominent being Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson, have claimed there is a growing perception among their voters that loyalist flag protesters are not being dealt with fairly under the law, apparently receiving harsher treatment than republicans facing criminal proceedings.
Last week, high-profile loyalists Willie Frazer, 53, from Co Armagh, and Jamie Bryson, 23, from Co Down, were remanded in custody charged with public order offences. Unionists contrast this with senior republican Sean Hughes, 51, from Co Armagh, who was granted bail after appearing in court charged with offences related to a murder.
Mr Baggott issued a public statement earlier this week emphatically rejecting the claims of bias. This was followed with a similar move by the Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, who defended the reputation of the region's judges.
The First Minister has reaffirmed his stance that a perception of bias against loyalists existed within unionism. "Neither the chief constable nor the lord chief justice can be immune from the need for these perceptions to be addressed," he said. "They have a responsibility to deal with these matters and to explain the facts and circumstances. Such explanations are necessary and indeed beneficial to strengthen the operation of the criminal justice system."