A Chief Constable warned that cuts had left his force teetering on a "cliff edge" yesterday as the country's total number of police officers fell to a 10-year low.
As cuts to Home Office funding begin to bite, police strength in England and Wales dropped by more than 4 per cent over the past year, according to Whitehall figures. It is thought to be the largest fall since the 1970s.
Tony Melville, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, said cuts locally and nationally had combined to leave his county force "in the middle of the perfect storm". He said: "Never before in my 34 years of policing have I experienced an issue which has galvanised staff and officers in the way this has."
Mr Melville added: "A series of local decisions have combined to take us to a metaphorical cliff edge."
His comments provoked a political storm. Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, described them as a "damning indictment" of the scale of the cuts and claimed the spending squeeze on forces was directly linked to the recent rise in violent crime reported to police.
The Home Office disclosed yesterday that the number of police officers had fallen by more than 6,000 to 136,261 in September. The number of community support officers fell by 907 to 15,469, while police staff numbers decreased by 8,820 to 69,407.
The number of officers in the largest force, the Metropolitan Police, fell by 1,243 to 31,657. Surrey was the only one of the 43 forces to increase numbers.
Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said the cuts were just the first of many and that they would undermine public safety. "We will see even fewer police officers available as we embark on policing the biggest security event this country has ever seen, the Olympic Games."
Nick Herbert, the Policing minister, said: "The strength and quality of frontline policing cannot, and should not, be measured simply in terms of officer numbers. What matters is not the total number of officers employed, but how officers are deployed."