PSNI is 180 officers short of a full force, says Assistant Chief Constable
The PSNI needs an extra 180 officers to maintain operational resilience, a senior police officer has said.
Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said the gap in policing numbers was currently being plugged with overtime.
He insisted that the organisation was still "well-equipped, effective and efficient", but admitted that additional policemen were needed.
Officer numbers have dropped to 6,780, which is below the recommended 6,963 resilience level.
With more than £200m slashed from the policing budget in the past five years, fiscal restraint has made it difficult to recruit new officers.
"The Chief Constable is constantly raising his resourcing and financial needs with government," said Mr Martin.
"We believe we need 6,963 police officers to police Northern Ireland, and we are below that figure at the moment. We are working very hard to ensure service to the public is not affected.
"We are trying to plug that gap with things like overtime, and we are trying to be efficient and effective. We are constantly looking at how we are spending our money.
"Policing in Northern Ireland is still well-equipped compared to many of the police services in England and Wales.
"Yes, we are seeing very significant cuts that are not welcome. Yes, we argue we need 6,963 officers and we don't have that. But I am very content that we are in a position of delivering a very effective and efficient police service."
A new recruitment drive is due to be launched before the end of the year to try and increase officer numbers, however it could be affected by anticipated in-year budget cuts.
With less money to spend and reduced officer numbers, policing teams across Northern Ireland have had to be restructured, Mr Martin revealed.
The number of neighbourhood policing teams (NPTs) has been reduced from more than 80 to 34. The NPTs have been placed in communities where there is high crime, a dissident threat or concern about paramilitary influence. A number of teams have also been allocated to rural communities in recognition of isolation issues.
Response teams, meanwhile, are to be replaced by 29 local policing teams (LPTs), working out of 29 police stations on a 24-hour basis. LPTs will deal with all emergency and priority calls, as well as neighbourhood engagement within a dedicated community patch. The new teams will be completely operational by the start of next month.
"Our focus on all of this, while we recognise the financial realities, at the centre of our consideration is what is best for the community," Mr Martin said.
"(In) everything we have done, policing with the community has been the central philosophy. We think we have come up with a new structure that is efficient, that takes account of public safety and changing crime trends.
"Policing will be different. My job is to ensure the money we do have available and the officers we have available are used in the most effective way."
Financial pressures have also seen a culling of the police estate, with further station closures due.
There are currently 59 police stations in Northern Ireland, just two of which are open to the public full time.
"Police stations are something that are very important to local communities," Mr Martin said. "But as policing evolves and as the police service has become smaller, we don't actually need the same level of estate for operational reasons.
"We are currently reviewing our estate. We will make our judgment on what we need operationally to deliver the service we need to deliver to the communities."
The officer said he did not know how many stations would be proposed for closure, though he admitted it would be several.
But he stressed: "Policing remains a 365-day-a-year, 24-hours-a-day vocation. Officers every day right across Northern Ireland are on patrol. They are arresting criminals, looking for missing persons, dealing with anti-social behaviour, carrying out drug searches.
"Of course, there is the potential that our visibility on the streets may be reduced because we have less people and less money. But when people need us, we will be there. We are about keeping people safe. When people are in danger, when people are not feeling safe, when people are vulnerable, when they require police, we will come to their aid."