PSNI spent 2,600 hours on petrol station drive-offs
Police officers are spending up to two hours of their working day locating motorists who forget to pay for their petrol.
PSNI bosses have warned that thousands of hours are going on recovering debt on behalf of petrol stations in cases of "genuine mistakes".
Chief Constable George Hamilton said the time could be spent preventing crimes such as burglary and domestic violence, detecting violent offenders and keeping people safe on the roads.
The warning came as the PSNI defended a controversial petrol drive-off scheme that had to be postponed following a huge backlash from politicians and retailers.
Introduced last month in two police districts - Lisburn and Castlereagh and Ards and North Down - the scheme made petrol station retailers responsible for tracing drivers who did not pay. Retailers and politicians criticised the scheme and accused the police of "washing their hands" of the issue.
However, the PSNI told the Policing Board that out of 1,564 reports of drive-offs in the two districts in the past year, 1,338 were "genuine mistakes".
The Chief Constable said: "Therefore, approximately 85% of all reports to police were not crimes. Both District Commanders assess that a minimum of two officer hours are taken up dealing with the simplest cases of these genuine mistakes and often it can be double or more.
"This means that across these two districts, a very conservative estimate indicates that a minimum of 2,600 officer hours are spent on recovering civil debt on behalf of petrol stations.
"In reality, we are spending thousands of (police) hours on this issue. This is valuable time that local officers and their district commanders want to spend keeping people safe by preventing crimes such as burglary and on detecting offenders for crimes of violence or keeping people safe on our roads.
"It is important to note that thousands of officer hours are being spent trying to recover civil debts occurring as a result of petrol station drive-offs.
"Police resources are finite and a variety of alternative steps are available to business owners to prevent incidents occurring."
The PSNI said that action had been taken to try and engage with business owners to try "to ensure that officers' time is used to the best effect and is focused on tackling those policing priorities that have been set by their local communities".
Before the scheme's postponement, retailers warned it would lead to an increase in people driving off without paying.