Concerns have been raised after the Chief Constable George Hamilton announced that the PSNI is facing a further 6% cut in its budget - totalling around £40.5 million.
The news comes after Mr Hamilton this week apologised after a Twitter exchange in which he advised a junior officer who claimed to be suffering stress that he could leave the PSNI.
The exchange prompted an outpouring of claims from rank and file officers that they are suffering excessive stress due to under-staffing. The PSNI and Policing Board maintain that staffing levels are in line with independently assessed requirements.
In a statement, the Chief Constable said the PSNI budget has already been cut by a quarter of a billion pounds in the past five years - and that this would have paid the salary of 1000 officers.
He said: “Finding more efficient, effective ways to deliver our service is an ongoing challenge,” he said. “We have to live within our budget and find savings. In the last five years the police budget has been cut by over a quarter of a billion pounds, which equates to salary costs of over 1,000 officers. Our police staff, who are critical to delivering policing in Northern Ireland have also been reduced by over 300 through the Voluntary Exit Scheme. In addition, I’ve been asked by the Department of Justice to look at further cuts for next year of up to 6% which is around £40.5m.”
On Wednesday the News Letter asked Justice Minister Claire Sugden and the PSNI what they were doing to secure funds to bring the PSNI up to the Patten standard of 7500 officers - some 600 short of current levels.
Justice Minister Claire Sugden told the News Letter: “I am committed to providing the Chief Constable with the resources he needs to keep the community safe. He and I maintain regular contact on these issues.”
The PSNI declined to comment but referred to a Policing Board statement which said that said staffing levels had been independently reviewed in 2013 and cut to 7000.
The Patten recommendation for peace time policing was 7500 officers, although the Police Federation says the PSNI is currently 600 short of this and that even this level was not envisaged as adequate to cope with such a high dissident threat.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie called on the Chief Constable to publicly reject the latest proposed cuts.
“The police are constantly being asked to do more with less,” said the former RIR Captain. “They expect the PSNI to function as though it is a ‘carry-on-regardless’ force.
“But the reality is that by making year-on-year cuts we are undermining the the ability of officers to do what we are want them to do.”
The recent panel report on paramilitarism called for an increase in community policing, he said.
He believes that the currently accepted staffing level for the PSNI of just under 7000 officers is decided upon after the budget has been set - and is not set by actual policing needs.
“I welcome these comments by the Chief Constable - but he now needs to be saying ‘no - with the level of resources you are giving me I cannot do the job’” the MLA said.
“He needs to be saying this forcefully and vocally and needs to produce the plan that proves that without the right resources he cannot do it.”
“I am staggered that the Policing Board is ignoring this and I am staggered that the Stormont Executive is ignoring this - the level of officers required even for policing, as set down in Patten.”
“We would support the Chief Constable on what are operational matters,” she said. “Policing policy should not dictated by numbers in a report [Patten] but by those at a senior level within the PSNI. They are the people who are best placed to allocate where their funding is most needed and the staffing levels they require.
“Both the Executive and the UK Government have provided money for policing and counter terrorism, with additional funding for police referenced in the Fresh Start Agreement. We welcome that recent recruitment drives have taken place and officers are already on the ground.”
Asked to comment, Sinn Fein said today simply that it is it is “committed to working to ensure funding is protected for front line policing to ensure safer communities”.
A Policing Board spokeswoman also responded to Mr Beattie’s criticim.
“On the back of the recent report published by the HMIC, the Board will discuss and agree with the Chief Constable the workforce mix necessary to deliver policing services in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“As part of those discussions the funding required to support this will be reviewed and any pressures facing the service will be highlighted to the Department of Justice / NI Executive.
“The NI Executive has also recently commissioned all Departments to conduct an assessment of the impact of a range of potential budget reductions for the period 2017-2020. The Board and the PSNI will be discussing the impact of those once the scenarios are compiled.”
The PSNI has been asked to comment.