Fears for public safety after High Sheriff Jim Rodgers says just 30 PSNI officers patrol Belfast at weekends
Fewer than 30 police officers are on active patrol in Belfast at weekends, it has been claimed, prompting serious fears over public safety in the city.
The allegation follows this newspaper's revelation that it took over an hour for police to respond to the theft of a valuable artwork from the new Bullitt hotel, despite the presence of a PSNI station directly across the street.
Veteran Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers, who sits on the Belfast Policing and Community Safety Partnership, also said patrolling officer numbers in Belfast have fallen alarmingly in the last two years.
His claims have been supported by the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, who said the response time to the botched theft highlights a staffing crisis within the force. The PSNI insisted there are adequate resources to police the city.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice, meanwhile, said the minister Claire Sugden is committed to working with the Policing Board and the Chief Constable to provide the resources needed to enable the police to keep people safe.
"People are in danger because police response times are simply unacceptable and it's a big worry," said Mr Rodgers, the city's High Sheriff.
"There are currently around 30 officers out on patrol in north, south, east and west Belfast on Saturdays and Sundays. That number has fallen from around 90 two years ago, and people are now extremely concerned about the lack of police on the ground."
He added: "We had a classic example; an incident happens just a few yards from a police station and look how long it took to respond. It's just not good enough. It also shows that, in terms of ordinary policing, people are not getting the service that they're paying big money for through their taxes."
PSNI Chief Superintendent Chris Noble, however, "absolutely refuted" that there is a lack of police resources in Belfast.
"While we do not give detailed comment on operational matters, I would like to assure the public that we always have the appropriate number of police officers available 24/7 across Belfast throughout the year," he said.
"On a daily basis, police officers and staff have to make difficult decisions. We have to prioritise resources like all other public services.
"At peak times where we see increased incidents and calls for assistance, we prioritise our response according to risk to life and vulnerability."
In relation to the Bullitt theft, Chief Superintendent Noble said enquiries began "immediately" and are "still ongoing". He added: "Whilst the incident occurred close to a police station, officers do not spend their shifts within the station complex. They are out on patrol, responding to calls and working to keep people safe."
Mr Rodgers, meanwhile, has called for an urgent review into policing.
"A few years ago we were getting a much higher standard of policing than we are presently and the last thing I want is to see vigilante groups springing up to look after their own areas, as has happened in the past," he said.
"More and more people are saying that it's a waste of time reporting a crime to the police because the response times are so bad - and sometimes officers don't even come out."
The £15,000 specially commissioned 6ft x 4ft portrait of Hollywood star Steve McQueen was removed from the newly opened Bullitt Hotel, named after one of the late actor's most famous movies.
The audacious heist ultimately failed because the striking black and white piece of art was too big to fit in the ageing suspects' getaway car, which was parked nearby.
Mark Lindsay, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said the PSNI's response time to the botched theft at Bullitt throws the current staffing issues into sharp focus.
"You mightn't even have had 30 officers on; with sickness and people on courses it could be even lower than that," he said.
"There are simply not enough police officers on the ground to deal with demand.
"We've seen police numbers - not only in Belfast but across Northern Ireland - become increasingly depleted.
"The police service is short-staffed. Officers are running from pillar to post in Belfast and across the province on a daily basis.
"They are not able to provide the level of service that is expected of them because they're running to the next call. Meanwhile, the calls are stacking up. Officers are coming onto duty in Belfast with 35 calls stacked up on them."
Mr Lindsay warned the Department of Justice that increasing demands on policing mean it is "absolutely crucial that there are no further cuts to the policing budget" in view of what happened at Bullitt.
"We've had £250m of cuts over the last number of years and we're starting to see the outworkings of that now, where officer stress levels and sicknesses and absences through stress are rising sharply," he said
"If further cuts are made there will be even bigger consequences and that hour could turn into two hours or three hours in the future - if there's any police response at all. They need to take stock of the consequences because it's the officers on the ground are trying to make wine from water and it can't be done. There's only so much that can be done. It can't all be done."
The Department of Justice spokesperson said that decisions on how resources are used are a matter for the Chief Constable and there are no immediate plans to conduct a review of policing.
"The entire public service has come under financial pressure in recent years. The Department has had to bear its share of that," said the spokesperson.
"However, the protection of the PSNI to 2% in 2016-17 is helping to ensure that front-line policing can be protected as far as possible."