The number of police officers in England and Wales fell by more than 2,500 last year, the first significant fall for at least six years, figures showed today.
There were 142,363 officers on September 30, a drop of 1.7% compared with the previous year, the Home Office figures showed.
The fall in numbers comes amid fears of further job losses over the next four years as the police grants are cut by 20% under the Government's spending review.
The number of police officers and Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) were both down, but the number of special constables - volunteers - rose 15.5% to 16,772, the figures showed.
But despite the falls, which saw PCSO numbers drop 2.6% to 16,376, there were still 566 more police officers in September last year than three years ago.
Policing and criminal justice minister Nick Herbert said: "It's not surprising that many forces have suspended recruitment after the economic downturn, and some had stopped recruiting officers before the last government left office.
"Having reached record numbers in the police workforce, forces can and must make savings in their back and middle offices, prioritising the front line and prioritising visible policing."
The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said it was inevitable that police numbers would fall further over the next four years as forces freeze recruitment and officers continue to retire or leave.
Chief Constable Peter Fahy, the Acpo lead for workforce development, said: "The challenge is to maintain those parts of the service which are most valued by the public while reducing bureaucracy and unproductive activity.
"This has to be a debate not about officer numbers but about what officers spend their time doing and the overall impact of funding reductions on public confidence in policing.
"The way policing is organised and delivered will have to change significantly as this reduction in officers takes hold."
The Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, warned that the fall was "just the start of a long slippery slope".
Vice-chairman Simon Reed said: "We take no pleasure in seeing our prediction become reality.
"It's naive of the Government to think they are replacing like for like by increasing numbers of special constables by 2,000 whilst cutting police officer numbers by 2,500.
"Special constables are there to support police officers, not replace them.
"Let's not forget, many specials have full-time jobs and do policing on a voluntary basis, free of charge, as and when they can; for most that may be no more than two or three days per month.
"The Government is jeopardising public safety if they continue to decimate the number of full-time police officers serving communities across England and Wales."
Shadow policing minister Vernon Coaker added: "These figures highlight what we already knew - that choices being made by this Tory-led Government mean cuts to police numbers across the country.
"We committed to protect frontline policing in our manifesto but this Conservative-led Government seems to be intent on seeing fewer police officers tackling crime and anti-social behaviour on our streets.
"Our big worry is that this is only the start of what could become much worse news on police numbers."
The Police Superintendents' Association of England and Wales said it was now "inevitable" that frontline services would suffer from the Government's cuts.
Chief Superintendent Irene Curtis, the association's vice president, added that it was disappointing to see police numbers fall "in such dramatic fashion".
"We were aware that forces were making cuts even before the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review were announced and these figures reflect that stark reality," she said.
"It is most disturbing to think that forces will now have to cut their workforce even further and it appears inevitable now that frontline services will suffer given the level of cuts chief officers have to find, particularly over the next two years, in order to balance the books.
"Our members will continue to lead officers and staff to protect communities and last week's reduction in crime shows that their efforts are making an impact.
"However, resources are clearly being stretched and we must continue to forge strong alliances with our partners in these challenging times to maintain the high level of service our communities currently receive."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies