More than 10 per cent of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) are off sick on any given day, according to official statistics, causing major problems for the shrinking force.
This means that more than 1,000 officers are unavailable for duty for medical reasons in a force numbering just under 9,500.
The high level of absenteeism comes as thousands of officers, attracted by voluntary severance packages, are leaving the force as its numbers are reduced in response to an overall fall in violence.
The PSNI confirmed yesterday that 1,093 officers are on sick leave, representing 11 per cent of the force. At least 25 per cent of those off sick have been injured on duty, many through rioting which has been going in the north Belfast area at a high level since last June.
On some nights dozens of officers have been wounded in disturbances that have involved both loyalist and nationalist elements. In north Belfast alone more than 1,000 injuries have been inflicted on police in the past six months. Early yesterday, for example, three officers suffered minor injuries when a blast bomb was thrown in the area.
Even at quieter times, more than 1,000 officers have been on standby on a daily basis to escort Catholic schoolgirls on their way to Holy Cross primary school in Ardoyne.
But even sources sympathetic to the police, not least because hundreds of officers have been killed and thousands badly injured over the years, say the system is being abused. One policing source admitted: "There is certainly a culture of going sick."
Jimmy Spratt, chairman of the Police Federation, which represents the rank and file, commented: "Morale has been pretty down in the dumps."
Officers receive full pay for six months after reporting an injury, but the authorities are believed to be examining ways of tightening the system.
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