THE cost of policing the ongoing Union flag protests has topped £20 million, senior officers have revealed.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott described the outlay as a "waste" of resources that should have been spent on tackling crime in communities.
The demonstrations have been held since early December when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the flag flies over the city hall.
A number of the earlier protests descended into serious violence and rioting, particularly in east Belfast, with about 140 police officers being injured.
The demonstrations have become more sporadic and less incendiary in recent weeks but a major criminal justice operation to bring lawbreakers to book is continuing, with almost 215 arrested to date.
Mr Baggott and his senior officers yesterday briefed members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board about the financial implications of the protests, the bill for which now sits at £20m.
"£11 million of that has been new money that we have had to provide, the rest has been [the cost of] police officers' time not being spent on the things that matter," Mr Baggott said.
"I think that it's a sadness. That money should have been spent on tackling drug dealers, it should have been spent on officers patrolling in the heart of our most disadvantaged areas, it should have been spent on people trafficking, it should have been spent on new technology, it's been wasted dealing with disturbances and disorder that should never have happened in the first place."
In recent days, unionist politicians, the most prominent being First Minister Peter Robinson, have claimed there is a growing perception among their voters that loyalist flag protesters are not being dealt with fairly under the law, apparently receiving harsher treatment than republicans facing criminal proceedings.
Last week, high-profile loyalists Willie Frazer (53) from Co Armagh, and Jamie Bryson (23) from Co Down, were remanded in custody charged with public order offences connected to the demonstrations.
Unionists have contrasted this to the case of senior republican Sean Hughes, (51) from Co Armagh, who was last week granted bail after appearing in court charged with offences related to the murder of father-of-three Robert McCartney in 2005.
Mr Baggott issued a public statement earlier this week emphatically rejecting the claims of bias. This was followed on Wednesday with a similar move by the Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan, who defended the reputation of the region's judges.
DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig yesterday urged Mr Baggott to provide statistics in relation to the policing of public order events in order to allay unionist concerns.
The chief constable said he would release statistics but warned they did not tell the story.
"If you use statistics as a way of trying to work out what we've done to 'us' and opposed as what we've done to 'them' you are in a very dangerous place," he said.
"Statistics do not give an account of the situation, the operational dilemmas, the article two [of the European Convention on Human Rights] protection of life considerations and exactly what the dynamics are in that community. I think it's dangerous to start doing this."
Mr Baggott also said the PSNI's decision-making model was "utterly consistent" and that the criminal justice system did not involve the police alone, emphasising the role and independence of the Public Prosecution Service and judiciary.
Noting the levels of deprivation in some of the areas that have been blighted by disorder, the chief constable urged politicians to "stop talking and start doing" in regard to tackling social issues.
"We have areas where there is huge health inequalities, where young people are growing up with limited educational opportunities, where there are high suicide rates, where there is the problem of drugs," he said.
"I think that's one of the major challenges to a political system that divides up departments rather than joins them up but I think that work is do-able and I think the time is now that we should be emphasising it and I would be hopeful that we could create a new impetus for this.”