LOYALIST protesters cannot be "swept off" the road because their human rights have to be upheld, the chief constable has said.
Matt Baggott was speaking after 4,000 loyalists blocked routes across Northern Ireland on Friday during coordinated protests dubbed 'Operation Standstill' - followed by two nights of rioting in east Belfast and parts of Co Antrim.
The chief constable said it was "simply impossible to have a rigid approach" when thousands of people take to the streets but warned that those who organised weekend riots in Cloughfern, Carrickfergus and east Belfast, which saw 29 police officers injured, were "leading young people by the nose towards prison".
He also said police were reviewing their tactics after several hundred loyalists "intent on violence" broke away from a larger group making its way back from a demonstration at Belfast City Hall on Saturday afternoon to march past the nationalist Short Strand.
Nationalists and loyalists clashed at the interface and homes in the Short Strand were attacked.
The chief constable insisted that "sweeping protesters" off the streets was not an option, arguing that while he was not endorsing illegal parades his responsibility was "to make sure the lives of people are protected".
"Even when the PSNI was 12,000 strong it would have not been possible to take such a rigid approach towards protests, let alone the discussions around the Human Rights Act, the balance between article 2, protect the life, and article 8 the right to individual freedom of expression - there's debates about that," Mr Baggott said.
"The reality is our approach has always been to be measured and responsible. We have simply to put public safety first and that worked very well and continues to work very well for the vast majority of those protests.
"I think pragmatically when you have over 4,000 people engaged in protest it is simply impossible to have a rigid approach to that."
The chief constable said the PSNI was "keen to keep hospitals and arterial routes open whenever possible and are continually revising our tactics".
"There is speculation about why doesn't the PSNI do this [sweep protesters off the road]. The reality is we put safety first and make sure that people's rights for peaceful protest are upheld wherever possible and we preserve our resources for dealing with the most serious outbreaks of violence."
Mr Baggott also said he was concerned that drug dealers and others were exploiting the unrest and if the violence continued it would undermine the PSNI ability to tackle those criminals.
He warned that the only way to resolve the flag issue was through the democratic process.
"We need a total and utter condemnation of violence from everyone, not just the politicians but those standing at the side of these protests and secondly I want to see an absolute reassertion of the rule of law in relation to the Parades Commission's position," he said.
"You can't have public safety and unregulated parades - they don't go together.
"I want to see a total assertion again that the only way to allow peaceful protest must be through proper notification, proper planning and proper regulation and that needs to be a universal voice across politics and from those who are community activists.
"And the last thing of course I would like to see is proper parental control over young people on the streets."
There have been 112 arrests connected to the disorder and those engaged in violent clashes can expect a "knock on the door" as police are examining CCTV footage to identify rioters, Mr Baggott warned.
■ 'REVIEWING TACTICS': Chief Constable Matt Baggott at yesterday's press conference
PICTURE: Hugh Russell