Belfast Telegraph

Police numbers 'on downward path'

Police numbers in Northern Ireland are at risk of falling to critically low levels, the chief constable has warned.

Matt Baggott raised concerns during a briefing with the Stormont justice committee in which he told MLA's at least 7,000 officers were needed to police the streets and protect the public.

"At the moment, we are on a downward path in terms of numbers," he said.

"I am concerned about that."

Between 500 and 600 officers are expected to leave the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over the next 12 months, reducing the force to around 6,200.

Current budget constraints have limited a new recruitment drive - the first in over three years - to 100 replacements, who will not be qualified until next March.

Mr Baggott said the volatile summer and winter of protests, coupled with the severe terrorist threat, was taking its toll on resources and morale.

He revealed the cost of policing street disturbances had already reached £15.5 million this year and said a loyalist protest camp at a north Belfast flashpoint was also a significant drain costing around £50,000-a-night to monitor.

"There is a genuine need," he added.

"At the moment, our organisation is tired."

The PSNI chief claimed there had been 3,000 fewer arrests compared to the same period for 2012 because officers were being regularly diverted from ordinary roles to public order duties.

Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie described the pressures experienced by the PSNI as "unprecedented".

The strength of the PSNI was significantly reduced from its pre-ceasefire level of 13,000 as part of the Patten reforms.

Around 1,000 extra officers from forces across the UK were drafted in to bolster numbers for the G8 conference in Fermanagh and also to help cope with the exceptional number of parades and protests during the annual Twelfth of July demonstrations earlier this year.

Last month, Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation union which represents thousands of rank and file officers, said the PSNI had to recruit an additional 1,000 officers.

He cl aimed some frontline officers were facing burn-out having to work 16 to 20-hour days.

Meanwhile, Mr Baggott denied allegations that the PSNI treated loyalist rioters differently to republicans in north Belfast.

He said he was aware of the perception in the unionist community but said: "I genuinely believe this is an impartial police force."

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