Chief Constable George Hamilton has painted a dire picture for the future of policing in the Province, saying huge cuts will make it “impossible” to deliver the same level of policing to the public.
He said he found himself looking at further cuts which, put into contexts, far exceeds the entire annual budget for E District, the largest of the PSNI’s eight districts, which takes in Armagh, Lurgan, Craigavon, Newry and beyond.
Only police stations in larger urban centres are expected to remain, and there will be a reduction of hours.
In recent years, police stations in Keady, Markethill, Loughgall, Bessbrook and Middletown have all gone but even more will be forced to close.
CC Hamilton said the PSNI, along with all other public sector organisations, was facing unprecedented levels of budget reductions.
He told the Northern Ireland Policing Board today: “Having already removed £47 million from our budget this year, we are now being asked for a further £51.4 million as a result of a 7% in year cut.
“To give you some perspective of the scale of these cuts, £50 million equates to over 900 police officers; The total annual budget for E District, which is the biggest of our eight policing districts, is £45 million pounds.
“Our duty is to keep people safe – that will remain our purpose. However, over the next few weeks and months, the cuts will necessitate radical changes to how we deliver policing.
“Section 32 of the Police Act Northern Ireland requires I and my organisation to protect life, preserve order, prevent crime and secure justice. Fulfilling these duties on behalf of the community means dismantling the international criminal gangs trafficking human beings within our community; protecting the vulnerable behind closed doors from crimes such as domestic violence or child abuse; responding to the economic threat posed by cyber and financial crime; and providing visible neighbourhood policing in our community.
“These are the duties expected of any Police Service across these islands. But policing Northern Ireland’s post conflict society goes wider than that.
“In Northern Ireland there is small, but dangerous number of violent dissident republicans who continue to plan attacks on police and pose a threat to the community. I can say with confidence that PSNI’s desire to keep people safe is greater than their desire to do harm; however there is no doubt that this threat places a substantial financial and human burden on the delivery of policing in Northern Ireland.
“PSNI also bears further additional costs from policing in a post conflict society. These include the demands for dealing with the past; the daily requirements of responding to interface tensions; and the significant costs of preventing and responding to serious public order resulting from increased community tensions.
“With cuts of this magnitude, it is no longer possible to deliver the same level or quantity of policing service across all these demands. These financial pressures will require me to prioritise service delivery to an extent never experienced before in Northern Ireland. I will work with the Policing Board and the Department of Justice in assessing what areas of police activity will be reduced or stopped.”
The Chief Constable said the reality was that, in the coming months, there would be less visible frontline policing.
He went on: “Reduced capacity will force us towards a more demand led model of policing, with resource prioritised on risk to life and emergency calls. Policing will have to focus on where vulnerability and need is greatest. I am also concerned that the operational outworking of such a pure demand led model could adversely affect the level of reassurance that policing delivers in rural areas.
“As a public servant I am mindful of my duty to produce a balanced budget but, as a police officer, the duty to keep people safe will always be my top priority. Policing is changing and the public will see and feel a difference as resources move to where the demand is greatest.”
CC Hamilton said he had already recently received notification from the Department of Justice to assess the impact of cuts next year of 10% and 15% against opening 2014-15 baselines.
And, looking ahead to 2015-16, he said his initial professional assessment was that cuts of this level would mean a police service that is unrecognisable.
He told the Board: “It is likely to mean a service with virtually no preventative capability; neighbourhood policing would be eliminated in all but a small number of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods; and as a service we would be primarily focused on emergency response policing and serious harm policing to tackle the most dangerous threats.
“A large proportion of the remaining police estate would have to close; police stations would be open to the public for a small number of hours across a small number of stations; and fleet reductions of the scale required would be so significant as to change mobile policing into a fire brigade type response, only responding to emergency calls.
“In addition, cuts of this level are likely to require a redundancy programme for police staff as well as additional funding to run such a programme. We would also need to explore the feasibility of compulsory retirement for police officers.”
The Chief Constable said the levels of cuts being imposed meant that it was “no longer affordable” to retain the 6963 officers.
And the plans for a third phase of recruitment has been stopped.
CC Hamilton went on: “With recruitment plans significantly reduced, it is anticipated that police officer headcount will decline over the next three years through retirements.
“External staff recruitment is on hold. Internal staff recruitment has also been put on hold. At present, the PSNI will have no capacity to fill any police staff post that becomes vacant.”
As already predicted and reported, the HET will cease to be at the end of this year when the temporary workers contract is not renewed.
Concluding, Chief Constable Hamilton said: “I and my officers and staff are charged with the duty of keeping people safe. In the weeks and months ahead, we will continue to provide our professional assessment of how best we can deliver on this duty within the financial constraints. But there is no doubt that the time ahead is one of immense challenge and very difficult choices.
“These financial pressures will require the prioritisation of police service delivery to an extent never experienced before in Northern Ireland. There are implications not only for the public and for my organisation, but also for many of the partner agencies with whom we work so closely.
“These decisions are too important to be left to the police alone. I want to work with the Policing Board and the Department of Justice in assessing what areas of police activity will be reduced or stopped. We are all public servants charged with a duty to produce a balanced budget and we must be ready to work together on behalf of the public we serve.”