Cuts in police numbers and no longer responding to some crimes will prove “catastrophic for the people of Scotland”, the body representing rank and file officers has warned.

The Scottish Police Federation told a fringe event at the SNP conference that an inability to attend growing numbers of calls because of staff shortages would prove “disastrous”.

SPF general secretary David Kennedy warned of a repeat of the “broken windows” problem in New York where not tackling minor crimes led to criminals committing more serious ones.

That led police chiefs in the 1990s to crack down on vandalism and other minor crimes to stop the escalation, an approach credited with clearing up the city’s crime-ridden image.

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Addressing SNP activists in Aberdeen, Mr Kennedy summed up the outlook for £1.4billion-a-year Police Scotland as “pretty bleak”.

He reminded them there were 16,267 police officers when the SNP came to power in 2007 and this rose to a peak of 17,497 in 2013, but was now heading for below 16,000.

He said: “What's happened over the last year and a half is we have seen a cut in those numbers, a quite catastrophic cut in those numbers. 

“As of April, we know the figure is going to be less than 16,000 police officers in Scotland.

“That’s dramatic, that’s police officers we need on the street policing 24/7.

“To lose 1500 police officers.. is not a good state of affairs.”

He said the police would simply not be able to do everything they do at present, especially with growing administrative and procedural burdens on officers. 

He said Police Scotland was stopping the recruitment and training of probationers until at least next April, yet officers continued to retire at an average rate of 60 per month.

“Practically, there will be less cops on the street,” he said.

He highlighted a controversial trial in the North East of Scotland in which officers were no longer attending many calls, calling it “devastating for the public”.

He said that prioritising crimes in progress and violence incidents meant crimes where the suspects had fled would be investigated later, by which time evidence may have been lost.

He also said that police attending apparently low level calls often encountered more serious crimes taking place, and those would be missed under the pilot and any copycats.

He cited his own experience of attending a call for a house alarm going off during the day which might have been dismissed as a fault, but led to a 20-minute struggle with an intruder.

He said that adopting the pilot approach would lead to a purely reactive police service, akin to the one people saw during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021.

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With thousands of police officers stationed in the city and a skeleton staff elsewhere in the country it led to officers reacting only to emergencies and not attending other calls.

He said: “That’s just horrendous. We police by consent in Scotland. We are, fundamentally, police officers in the community working for the community, and we can’t do that [this way].

“They will cut back on police officers attending, they’ll cut everything right back, so it’s only the emergency stuff. It’s catastrophic for the people of Scotland.”

Also at the event, SNP MSP Audrey Nicoll, chair of Holyrood’s criminal justice committee and a former police officer, said the outlook for the service was “extremely challenging”.

Mr Kennedy and some members of the audience pleaded for a reform of the court service to avoid officers wasting days waiting for cases to be called only to be seen home unrequired.

Police Scotland said earlier this month that it had been “required to reduce the budgeted officer establishment this year from 17,234 to 16,600”.

The force said the Scottish Government’s budget for 2023/24 had confirmed an £80m core funding uplift for policing, of which £37m will fund the 2022/23 pay award, leaving £43m to fund “unavoidable pay and other inflationary costs for the current financial year”.

Then Deputy Chief Constable Designate Fiona Taylor said Police Scotland faced “hard choices being taken to maintain effective policing within the funding available”.

She said: “Despite the funding pressures we’re facing, communities should be reassured that we are doing everything possible to direct resources to areas which encounter the greatest demand, and which carry the greatest risk, and that we continue to effectively reduce harm and protect the vulnerable.”