Face-to-face policing to be scaled back as PSNI seek online crime reports
Victims of crime will face having to report incidents online following the planned closure of six PSNI enquiry offices and cuts to opening hours across Northern Ireland's police stations.
The move has been criticised by the chair of the Police Federation, who said it was no substitute for face-to-face interaction with the public.
Victims and witnesses of theft, criminal damage and assaults will be encouraged to use the PSNI website to report incidents.
The cost-cutting exercise is in response to what the PSNI called the "evolving digital footprint" as thousands of people access the police service through their digital platforms.
Police say the PSNI's revamped online crime reporting web page attracted more than 17,000 people last year.
Mark Lindsay, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which represents rank-and-file officers, described the planned closures as "the first inevitable step" to further cuts he said will change the way policing is delivered here.
"This latest development has the potential to restrict access to police officers, which will reduce levels of engagement," he said.
"The danger is we will become a more remote service, unable to provide required levels of visibility and reassurance to people in need.
"There is no denying the changing trends that are occurring.
"That said, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with the public.
"We've seen neighbourhood policing devastated by a series of draconian budget cuts and this is one further step on that road.
"As budgets continue to be slashed, there will be radical decisions taken by the PSNI which will force communities to think differently about the role of the PSNI and how they interact with the public."
The decision comes as police chiefs here said they were planning cuts of around £20 million from next month because of the political instability at Stormont.
The uncertainty has left the PSNI facing a 3% budget reduction, the force said.
Six police station enquiry offices will close from April 3, while every other office will see a reduction in opening hours.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: "Advances in technology have made it possible for the PSNI to deliver new ways of reporting crime, filling out official forms and engaging with officers.
"People are choosing to contact us in a different way and we want to deliver what they want in the way they have chosen while maintaining our front line service.
"Digital access is what the public have chosen and, in this environment of changing public need and police resources, this is how we are designing for the future and providing best value for public money.
"Enquiry offices were conceived before the digital age, however we appreciate that there are some services that require face to face interaction." The SDLP's Dolores Kelly, a former member of the Policing Board, said the latest decision will leave the public concerned over response times to crimes and how enquiries were handled.
The Upper Bann MLA said that there should be an increase in neighbourhood policing in light of the closures.
"People like knowing who their neighbourhood policing team is," she said.
"It's also about ensuring good response times for these online crime reports.
"Is there any point in reporting it if no one is coming out or you are only getting a crime reference number? That would be a concern.
"We want call response times and handling improved."
From April 3, enquiry offices at stations at Antrim Road in Belfast; Ballycastle; Ballymoney; Carrickfergus; Portadown and Newcastle will no longer be open to the public for routine business.
Enquiry offices across Northern Ireland, with the exception of Musgrave police station in Belfast city centre, will be open from 11am to 7pm, Monday to Friday.