Police in Northern Ireland must do more to protect and support vulnerable victims of crime, inspectors have found.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) raised concerns with how the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) handles cases involving child sexual exploitation, missing children and domestic abuse.
Inspectors highlighted evidence of good practice in the PSNI's dealings with vulnerable victims but said more needed to be done to strengthen other aspects of its work.
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris said he accepted the criticisms but insisted the organisation had made significant strides to improve how it handles the rapidly growing number of cases involving vulnerability.
The HMIC official assessment grading of "requires improvement" was outlined in one of two separate inspection reports it conducted on the PSNI in February this year.
The second, which focused on how efficiently the PSNI deploys it resources, delivered a more positive verdict.
Overall the efficiency performance was rated as "good". However, HMIC did raise concerns about the sustainability of the PSNI's workforce model going forward.
Inspectors highlighted that almost 1,500 officers (20%) are eligible for retirement in the next three years and questioned how the lost skills would be replaced.
The report also flagged a heavy reliance on overtime resources and noted high levels of long-term sickness.
HMIC's Michael Cunningham said: "We were pleased to find that the service is demonstrating a good understanding of current demand for its services and is good at financial management.
"We have identified areas where it could be more efficient - including building a clearer understanding of future demand, and better planning for how it uses its workforce.
"However, we do have concerns with how the force responds to and protects vulnerable victims. In particular we were concerned to see inconsistencies in how staff recognise and assess vulnerability.
"I am encouraged that leadership of the force has made the protection of vulnerable people a clear priority. We will continue to monitor how this commitment results in improved service for vulnerable victims."
The PSNI's own definition of a vulnerable person is someone who needs special care, support or protection due to their age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.
Inspectors acknowledged the PSNI had prioritised such cases and had established a dedicated public protection branch.
But the inspection raised concerns around how some reports from vulnerable people are handled. It said the initial response was in the most part good but there were training inconsistencies, meaning not all call handlers had a comprehensive understanding of how best to safeguard a victim.
It found instances of call handlers ending 999 calls from domestic abuse victims too early. On one occasion a call was terminated while the woman on the line was being approached by her alleged attacker.
HMIC found the PSNI's response to missing children cases was "not consistently good". It highlighted concerns about risk assessment processes, questioning why "many" children that exhibited warning flags of being at high risk of sexual exploitation had been graded as only medium risk by police.
It said the PSNI was "not yet prepared to fully tackle child sexual exploitation".
In 2014, a Stormont-commissioned inquiry found that the crime was a growing threat to young people.
However, the inquiry by Scottish expert Professor Kathleen Marshall found no evidence of organised exploitation on the scale of that uncovered in Rochdale and Rotherham.
The HMIC inspectors said the PSNI had developed good links with partner agencies but there was work to do to train front-line staff to deal with the child sex exploitation threats.
They said there was also a need to develop better links with private-sector companies, including hotels and taxi providers, to help prevent and gather intelligence about exploitation.
The PSNI's response to domestic incidents was also rated "not consistently good".
The report acknowledged the service had made tackling the crime a strategic priority, however it cited a lack of clarity around where responsibility rested for referring victims to partner and voluntary agencies.
Mr Harris said the number of cases involving a vulnerable victim or offender had increased dramatically in the past decade.
He said the HMIC had set out the "next steps we have to take".
He added: "Fundamentally we are heading in the right direction around all of these areas.
"Obviously they have found things they think are good but they have found more they are unhappy with.
"It's a high bar to cross in terms of being content around vulnerability because there is so much at risk and, if you get this wrong, people suffer and suffer terribly.
"So this is a very high bar to cross and you can expect to get an exacting report and that's what's happened here."
In assessing the PSNI's efficiency, inspectors commended its ability to manage and balance its annual budget in the face of in-year cuts.
But they said constraints within the local funding model were hampering its ability to plan for the future.
These included a lack of longer-term budget settlements and being unable access to financial tools available to other UK forces, such as the ability to carry forward underspends, build reserves or borrow money.
Mr Harris said access to those financial tools and an ability to set a three-year budget, rather than year-on-year plans, would make financial management "a lot easier".
But he stressed responsibility for those policy decisions rested with Stormont.
In response to HMIC's various workforce concerns, the senior commander said future recruitment plans had factored in the anticipated flurry of retirements, and he claimed new initiatives were helping to bring down sickness levels.
He said the PSNI was focused on reducing the overtime bill but the nature of policing in Northern Ireland - with its geographical isolation from the rest of the UK, the need to deploy extra officers for public order incidents, and the raft of outstanding legacy issues - meant the use of additional police officer hours was often unavoidable.
The PSNI's oversight body, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said issues highlighted by HMIC would require immediate attention.
Board chair Anne Connolly said: "These reports provide us with an independent professional policing assessment of how the PSNI is performing and discharging its responsibilities in a number of key areas.
"Whilst the assessments make some very positive comments around how the PSNI currently uses resources to meet and manage policing current demands, there are some areas of the report that cause concern and will require immediate attention by the PSNI.
"In the assessment completed, the particular policing challenges for the PSNI have been highlighted and the actual cost impacts these have on day-to-day resourcing and capability.
"Given the focus, priority and commitment that the PSNI has given to keeping people safe and ensuring the protection of vulnerable people, it is disappointing that inconsistency in approach across a number of areas has been identified.
"The board will now consider the reports in detail with the Chief Constable (George Hamilton) and actions that need to be taken to redress the areas that require improvement."
The reports are set to be discussed at the monthly meeting of the board in Belfast on Thursday.