Editorial: Less police equals less policing

THE headline on the PSNI press statement was devastating in its brevity: "Less police equals less policing."

A less succint but equally alarming precis would be that cutbacks are likely to mean slower response times, longer investigations, fewer police stations, a reduction in road policing and even greater delays in the court system.

Senior officers were yesterday briefing the Policing Board and PSNI members on the expected consequences of the dire financial situation they find themselves in.

The service faces a funding shortfall of around £80 million in the current financial year, with an even worse scenario predicted for the years to come.

With staff costs accounting for the bulk of the annual budget, a reduction in the workforce is unavoidable.

An effective freeze on recruitment means that by March, there will be 309 fewer police officers and 115 fewer staff, a reduction of nearly 6 per cent.

This would bring the total number of full-time officers down to 6,699, the lowest since the force was formed in 2001.

The PSNI points out that this comes at a time when the population is growing, workloads are increasing and crime is rising.

Fewer resources means difficult decisions about priorities and there has been a warning of "real and noticeable impacts" in the year ahead.

The Police Federation is understandably alarmed. Appealing for a crisis summit with political parties, it said the cuts will have a devastating effect on officers and impact on their ability to fight crime.

Unfortunately, the Stormont parties themselves bear a heavy responsibility for the critical situation the police service finds itself in.

Three years ago the New Decade, New Approach agreement committed the executive to bringing police numbers up to the 7,500 envisaged in the Patten report.

Even if an executive were to be restored tomorrow, there would be little confidence that parties would be willing to make the hard political choices required to pay for proper public services.

The education sector is currently also facing devastating cuts to its budget, while the crisis in the health service will require billions for a comprehensive programme of investment and reform.

It is deeply depressing that more than two decades after the optimism surrounding the Good Friday Agreement and new start to policing, the PSNI finds itself delivering such a bleak message.