Police to axe beat officers in 40 towns and villages in Northern Ireland
Teams of community beat officers are to be scrapped in dozens of areas as the devastating cuts to the police budget hit frontline services.
More than 40 towns, villages and neighbourhoods across Northern Ireland will no longer have a dedicated neighbourhood policing team as the PSNI is forced to restructure its diminishing manpower.
Rank-and-file officers have warned that by stripping away neighbourhood police teams, "paramilitary policing" will fill the void.
They have also said that they are struggling to respond to calls for help from the public due to officer numbers being at "crisis levels".
However, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin, who is in charge of district policing, insisted that keeping the public safe remained the PSNI's priority.
He said changes to the policing structures were being made "to use our reducing resources in the most effective and efficient way possible to protect people, prevent crime and detect offenders."
From October, Neighbourhood Policing Teams will be slashed from more than 80 to just 34.
The teams will be based in areas "with higher levels of crime and deprivation... rural isolation or particular policing need," ACC Martin said.
Neighbourhood teams were introduced so that officers, dedicated to individual neighbourhoods, could listen to and help tackle the things that really matter to that particular area, by working alongside community groups, schools, youth groups and individuals.
Expansion of the teams formed an important part of the PSNI's community policing ethos.
However, multi-million pound budget cuts has meant that neighbourhood teams can no longer be sustained at their current levels.
ACC Martin said that, to manage the reduction of neighbourhood teams, 26 new Local Policing Teams (LPT) will be introduced in some areas to deal with community problems as well as to respond to call-outs and conduct investigations.
He added that the focus of the Local Policing Teams and Neighbourhood Teams "will remain on protecting people, preventing crime and detecting offenders through policing with the community." Mr Martin said the new model of policing was being developed "to use our resources in the most efficient and effective way possible".
"Our foremost consideration is keeping people safe. We are making these changes to use our reducing resources in the most effective and efficient way possible to protect people, prevent crime and detect offenders," ACC Martin explained.
"I would like to reassure the public that policing remains a 24- hour, seven-days-a-week operation and we will be there at people's time of need.
"We can be contacted 24 hours a day on either 101 or in an emergency via the 999 system."
However, some officers have raised concerns about the reduction of the neighbourhood teams and said they were struggling to cope with diminishing police officer numbers.
One officer who works in a border town said: "If you take away dedicated neighbourhood officers there are certain areas in Northern Ireland where that vacuum will be filled by paramilitaries.
"They will see this as an opportunity to police their own areas and that means all the progress officers have made within difficult areas in recent years will be reversed."
He added: "In areas that have lost their NPTs that will mean an end to cross-community group outings, no more drug or alcohol awareness, no school visits.
"It can't be helped. Officer numbers are at crisis levels and it will just get worse."
Another officer, based in Belfast, claimed that calls for help from the public "are stacking simply because there are no police officers free to go".
The constable added: "If you go to any police station in west Belfast don't expect to get any help and you will be greeted by a single police officer who will be disciplined for letting you into the station or leaving the station to help you.
"When officers in west Belfast call for assistance there are no officers to come."
He also said officers' "morale, energy and passion" for the job "is all but gone" because of the pressures they face.