PSNI chief Byrne warns force may be left ‘unrecognisable’ due to loss of officers

The PSNI is at risk of being left “unrecognisable” due to budgetary pressures that could see the loss of more than 1,000 officers by 2025, Chief Constable Simon Byrne has warned.

The police chief answered questions from the policing board on Thursday in relation to funding pressures facing the service.

The PSNI is facing a funding gap of £141million that could result in a total recruitment freeze, cuts to overtime, closing police stations and enquiry offices and grounding some of the police fleet.

In the absence of a Stormont government, the budget for the region was set by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris.

Mr Byrne said policing in Northern Ireland would be unrecognisable without intervention.

“I think you could draw a conclusion that given all the data, the risks, and the trends, that policing is clearly at a watershed in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Our sort of red flag on this is that without intervention, the police service that we have and we enjoy, risks becoming unrecognisable in the next few years, unless corrective action is taken.

“Which puts into jeopardy, suddenly, a lot of the aspirations and ambition of the Patten reforms.”

The PSNI was created following the Patten Report in 2001 which said the force should have 7,500 officers for peacetime policing.

The New Decade, New Approach agreement which restored Stormont in 2020 reaffirmed that commitment to 7,500 officers.

The policing board heard on Thursday that reductions in recruitment as staff leave are amounting to one officer leaving the force a day, and if current trends continue the number of officers could fall from the current number of 7,008 to 5,954 in 2025.

Mr Byrne said such a reduction in numbers would affect public confidence in the police.

“I take members back to part of the (Good Friday) agreement itself, when it talks about policing being capable of maintaining law and order, including responding effectively to crime and to any terrorist threat and to public order problems, and it reminds us that a police service which cannot do so will fail to win public confidence and acceptance,” he said.

“So if you go back to where we started as a police service, I think there’s an ambition there, but our stark reminder is that it is in jeopardy and clearly the prize, that Patten put in the room and all those hard won gains are now at risk given the untenable financial situation that we find ourselves in.”

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton told the policing board the growth strategy that was envisioned for the police service in the New Decade New Approach agreement has been dashed by current cuts.

“The strategy of the organisation was based upon growth, and not upon reduction,” he said.

“And the performance of the organisation was based upon enhancing performance, to improving the safety of people for Northern Ireland, getting to calls quicker, going to more calls, getting better criminal justice that comes with more people.”

He added: “It is important to realise that we are in complete reverse gear here, not a forward-looking gear.

“And for me, that’s the main headline today, that where policing is going, it’s going backwards not forwards.”

The resource plan for 2023/2024 outlines that the PSNI will be facing a budgetary gap of £38m, only being able to avoid a gap in 2022/23 by what the plan refers to as “a programme of aggressive savings”.

Some £69m of cuts are planned for the 2023/24 financial year, £32m of which will be from headcount reductions.

A £4m cut to overtime, it's warned, will impact on the police’s ability to cope with large public events, with the visit of US President Joe Biden and the Coronation visit of the King being cited to the board as examples events that required significant police operations.

The plan says police forces will be further stretched by a 3.7% increase in crime level as well as growing population in Northern Ireland.

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