Police numbers won't be cut to make savings of £13m, says senior PSNI officer
The PSNI will not slash police numbers to meet £13m budget reductions next year, a senior officer has claimed.
Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris warned a cull in numbers would carry "significant risks" and insisted everything was being done by the organisation to protect resilience levels.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned that government officials asked the PSNI to consider downsizing the force by at least 300 officers.
It is understood the cut was recently suggested by Department of Justice (DOJ) officials as a way for the PSNI to meet future budget pressures.
But Mr Harris told this newspaper the force would continue to seek to protect its operational requirement of 6,963 officers, despite facing fiscal pressures.
He admitted, however, that no guarantees on workforce levels could be given beyond the 2016/17 financial year.
With £13m to be axed from the main budget next year, police bosses are to scale back the number of public events officers currently cover.
"Police numbers are tied in with the amount of money we get," said Mr Harris. "Given the area we police - it is the only part of the UK with a land border, the particular issues around ongoing violent extremism, be it from violent dissident republicans, or from loyalists, and problems identified around gangsterism - based on our assessment, 6,963 is the number we need.
"To go beneath that we think carries significant risks. If the money drove us there, well that would cut into police numbers. But before we go to the front end, we always look to see what we can do to save money and to be more efficient and effective."
Mr Harris said that to meet the budget pressures, several changes, including policing of some public events, would have to be made.
"We are doing all we can to safeguard the frontline both in police and staff who provide a frontline service," he added. "What we are going to have to do is look at what we spend on overtime, sports services, functions, [and ask] can they be delivered more efficiently?
"I'm involved in going through every activity that we take on. A lot of these areas have built up over time, so we will look at these afresh. That's an exercise that will go on over the next few months and is something we have seen by police in England and Wales."
Although next year's police budget cuts are less than the 5% anticipated, Mr Harris could not give any long-term assurances about officer numbers.
"All we have is the budget for 2016/17," he said. "To give those longer-term assurances is very difficult. It will stretch us and continue to stretch us, but at the same time we will be working very hard to make sure we maintain our operational presence. We are very much focused on using our resources to keep people safe and deal with vulnerability and serious harm issues."
The Police Federation, the body that represents rank and file officers, warned that any attempts to downsize manpower would be strongly opposed.
"When you look at the ongoing terrorist threat, the last thing the PSNI can do is consider downsizing," said chairman Mark Lindsay. "You can't run a police service on overtime.
"We have repeatedly expressed concern about the number of police officers on the ground, given the unique policing environment in Northern Ireland, working under terrorist threat.
"We need a minimum of 7,500 officers in Northern Ireland as envisaged by the Patten [Report]. That is the only part of Patten that has not been implemented, and that is the one that directly affects officers."
Officers on the ground are becoming increasingly frustrated by shrinking resources.
"I'm aware of a few examples recently where officers were having to extend their shifts up to 24 hours to provide last-minute cover," one officer told the Belfast Telegraph. "That can't be allowed to become a regular occurrence. How can you expect someone to perform to the best of their abilities if they are exhausted?"
Another added: "I'm fed up warning about our lack of resources. How are we supposed to keep people safe when we're stretched? I can't stress enough how we need more, not less, resources."
A DOJ spokeswoman said that as part of the agreed budget for next year, "the level of reductions applied to the core police budget will be limited to 2%".
They added: "Decisions on the allocation of the budget are an operational matter for the Chief Constable, for which he is accountable to the Policing Board."
So far this year, the PSNI has made £40m of savings upfront and further in-year budget savings of £23m. In total, £220m has been removed from the budget during the past four years.