Unionists at odds in dispute over PSNI staffing levels

The DUP has clashed with the SDLP and UUP over acceptable staffing levels for the PSNI
The DUP has clashed with the SDLP and UUP over acceptable staffing levels for the PSNI

The Assembly opposition has clashed with the DUP and Policing Board over whether PSNI staffing levels should be elevated to the basic 7,500 officers recommended by Patten.

The call comes after the chief constable apologised for inviting a junior officer via Twitter to leave the force after he complained of excessive stress.

The issue prompted an outpouring of complaints by officers in the media of what they said was excessive staff shortages and stress. Current PSNI staffing levels are 600 short of the 7,500 recommended in 1999 by the Patton Commission.

Stormont justice committee member and UUP MLA Doug Beattie told the News Letter: “There is simply no resilience in the police due to the lack of numbers and no slack in the system.

“A two per cent cut in the budget means that the chief constable has to work his numbers around the police budget as opposed to the budget working around policing needs. This is not acceptable and change is needed.”

UUP Policing Board member Ross Hussey also slammed “the continual drift away from the suggested establishment of 7,500 officers”.

Likewise an SDLP spokesman said the party “made clear in our 2016 Assembly election manifesto our support for increasing the number of community police officers on our streets”. This issue has been raised at the Policing Board and the SDLP has met with the Police Federation to discuss this and other challenges facing police officers, he added.

But Policing Board member and DUP MLA Nelson McCausland told the News Letter his party supports the chief constable on staffing matters and that “policy should not dictated by numbers in a report [Patten] but by those at a senior level within the PSNI”.

Both he and the Policing Board noted that the Executive and HM Treasury recently provided extra money for policing and counter terrorism.

The MLA also welcomed recent recruitment drives that have already put officers on the ground.

A Policing Board spokeswoman said resources are discussed monthly with the chief constable and that a recent report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary provides an independent assessment of resources to determine staffing.

She added that the PSNI “must operate within the budget provision” from the Executive.

The Patten figure of 7,500 officers is “no longer applicable” following a 2013 PSNI review which set the figure at 6,963 officers, she added.

In June the Police Federation of Northern Ireland annual conference heard that burnt-out PSNI officers want the Chief Constable and Justice Minister to lobby the Treasury for funding to reach minimum safe staffing levels recommended by Patten.

The PSNI has 6,800-6,900 officers but Patten recommended 7,500 officers in “a totally peaceful environment” - a shortage of 600 officers despite the high dissident threat.

Officers took well over 30,000 sick days in 2015.

Federation chairman Mark Lindsay said: “Northern Ireland tends to be compared with similar forces – but there are no similar forces.

“We are compared with Liverpool or Merseyside, but they can quite frequently send one officer out to do what may need two to four officers in Northern Ireland.”

A 2015 survey showed very low morale in 96% of officers.

PFNI speaks for officers up to chief inspector rank.