Police Service of Northern Ireland at tipping point, chief constable warns

Jon Boutcher said there will be ‘difficult decisions’ over the services the PSNI can provide if the force does not get the funding it needs.

Rebecca Black
Thursday 07 March 2024 13:50 GMT
Jon Boutcher was speaking as the recently restored Northern Ireland Executive prepares to set the next budget (PA)
Jon Boutcher was speaking as the recently restored Northern Ireland Executive prepares to set the next budget (PA) (PA Wire)

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is at a tipping point, the chief constable has warned.

Jon Boutcher detailed additional duties being taken on, including plugging a gap where the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service cannot attend calls, and said without the necessary funding they will have to take some “difficult decisions” on what they can do.

He was speaking as the recently restored Northern Ireland Executive prepares to set the next budget.

Last week the Assembly’s justice committee heard a warning that this is set to be a “most challenging year” for the Department of Justice which funds the PSNI, and is facing £444 million of pressures.

We are the glue that holds the Good Friday Agreement in place and we need to be a service that is capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole

Jon Boutcher, PSNI chief constable

Appearing before the Northern Ireland Policing Board on Thursday, Mr Boutcher outlined an example of an elderly woman with a broken pelvis who was brought to hospital in a police Land Rover because no ambulances were available.

He referred to the Patten report on policing which recommended 7,500 full-time officers in a peacetime Northern Ireland, but said they have lost 22% with numbers currently at 6,400.

The chief constable said while the threat level was lowered from severe to substantial this week, it has “effectively been at severe since 2010”.

“This a unique place with regards to policing in the United Kingdom, we are the glue that holds the Good Friday Agreement in place and we need to be a service that is capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole,” he said.

“The service, in real terms, we have lost 22% of our staffing levels in police officers. That is not sustainable.”

Mr Boutcher contended that the PSNI has experienced the largest expenditure reduction in all the UK police forces since 2010, and the budget of the Garda Siochana in the Republic of Ireland has gone up 23% in the last three years.

He also described sickness levels as having risen “significantly” to double levels in England and Wales, while staff morale last year faltered.

Mr Boutcher said the PSNI had positive reports from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the Independent Reporting Commission and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee but also expressed concern around staffing levels and/or budget.

He said the HMICFRS report recognised the additional responsibilities of police in Northern Ireland, including national threats, legacy, being an armed force, a fortified estate and threats against officers.

In terms of supporting the health service, Mr Boutcher said police attend around 500 ambulance calls a months, where the ambulance service cannot respond to calls.

It's getting to a position where if we don't get the support that we need, we will be having some really difficult conversations about what we are and what we are not able to do

Jon Boutcher, PSNI chief constable

He said between January 1 2023 and April 14 2023 police spent approximately 4,550 hours in hospitals with people in a mental health crisis, and between March 1 2023 and March 1 2024 police dealt with 21,425 calls relating to mental health.

“This is the tip of the iceberg. There is an example in my foreword where our armed response officers managed to look after an elderly lady who was in crisis and simply couldn’t get an ambulance… we removed her in an armoured Land Rover with her daughter. These are day-to-day examples,” he said.

“It’s getting to a position where if we don’t get the support that we need, we will be having some really difficult conversations about what we are and what we are not able to do.

“The situation is pretty serious… tipping point is exactly where we are, so I would appeal to anybody and everybody understands the challenges that we are facing, conscious of the incredible difficulty facing other public services and the amount of funding provided to Northern Ireland, but recognises the need for policing to be invested in.”

Meanwhile, as the police college can only bring in 350 recruits a year, Mr Boutcher said he is looking at other ways of recruiting, such as direct detective recruitment, transferees from other police forces as well as upping how many recruits can be trained at the college each year.

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