Budget cuts mark 'end of policing as we know it'
The PSNI has defended its new cost-cutting response policy amid concerns that thousands of calls to police will no longer be dealt with by officers.
As part of a major restructuring of the organisation to deal with a reduced force and further budget cuts, the number of times an officer personally attends a report of a crime is to dramatically drop.
Already around 500 non-emergency calls to the police every day - 175,000 a year - are resolved over the phone by call handlers with the caller having no contact with an officer at any stage.
That number is set to increase with police chiefs warning that many more calls will have to be dealt with this way over the phone to free up officers for front-line duties.
Also, many more reports of crime are to be dealt with through scheduled appointment at the victim's home, a police station or a police surgery.
Chief Inspector Clive Beatty, from the PSNI's call management team, said this reduces demand on front-line officers and allows officers "to continue keeping people safe by deploying them to where they are most needed in terms of threat, harm and risk".
However, serious concerns have been raised that such a move, along with the potential closure of several more police stations, marks the end of personal policing.
"It is the end of policing as you and I know it - the physical interface with an individual police officer over almost any issue," warned Policing Board member Jonathan Craig.
Mr Craig added: "In the present reality not everything is going to be dealt with face to face with a police officer. The thing that worries me about it is that we are beginning to see a distance between the public and the police starting to occur.
"It is becoming almost like another branch of the civil service where your queries, complaints, concerns are dealt with online or over the phone. It is all so remote." The DUP man admitted that the move "is an inevitable by-product of budget cuts", but stressed that "we can't lose normal, personal policing. That's where you can lose public confidence."
Calls resolved by trained contact management staff rather than a police officer are "low-level incidents, where the needs of the caller can be met without the input of police officers," Chief inspector Beatty said.
"This is when contact management staff can record the incident and if necessary, offer telephone advice or information, as well as signposting the member of the public to a more appropriate agency or service to ensure the enquiry is resolved to the caller's satisfaction."
The non-emergency crimes and incidents that will be dealt with through an arranged appointment at the victim's home, a police station or a police surgery "applies when it is not critical for police to attend a scene or incident to apprehend offenders or preserve evidence," Chief Inspector Beatty said.
The PSNI has been forced to restructure due to diminishing officer numbers and severe budget cuts.
Last week Chief Constable George Hamilton told the Policing Board that with high numbers of officers retiring, and very limited scope for recruitment, it is anticipated officer numbers will be around 200 less than the numbers agreed in a Review of Resilience and Capability.
In 2013 it was estimated that 6,963 officers were required to "remain effective and ensure capacity to respond to the significant challenges presented by policing in a post-conflict society."
However, Mr Hamilton said that the level of cuts over the last 18 months has meant this number is no longer affordable.
He also warned that the PSNI is facing further in-year budget cuts of at least £16m.