Scotland’s top police officer said she has been “shocked” by the lack of focus on frontline policing in Scotland since taking up her post seven months ago.

Addressing the centenary conference of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (ASPS) in the Borders, Police Scotland Chief Constable Jo Farrell said the organisation was being “held under the water on a daily basis” by the scale of demand it faces.

She pointed to officers being taken off the front line to do work that should be done by police staff, and the demands of mental health incidents and court citations, which she said had a “significant impact” on policing by taking officers out of their communities and seeing rest days cancelled.

She said an officer attends a mental health-related incident every three or four minutes on average, which, she said, equates to between five and seven hundred full-time officers’ worth of time.

She said “We must focus intently on our core duties and what matters to the people we serve. We must evolve our service so that we can live within our means and are fit for the challenges coming down the line.

READ MORE: What is going wrong at Police Scotland?

“Some of our evolution will be in our structures and working practices, but everything we do must be about prioritising the front line and tackling harm and high harm and the issues that most affect the communities we serve.”

She added, since starting in post seven months ago, she had been “quite surprised and at times shocked at the lack of focus on frontline policing in this organisation”.

Her comments came after a speech from ASPS president, Chief Superintendent Rob Hay, in which he called on police to steer clear of “toxic” culture wars.

Mr Hay told the conference: “The divisive, political and toxic nature of some of the debate raging in wider society is not a place policing should ever inhabit.

“The flood of spurious complaints received upon the enactment of the new hate crime legislation is the latest example of the mischief-making we have seen, undertaken with spiteful glee and diverting police resources from those in actual need.

“So, let us be pacifists in the culture war as we have no interest in arresting JK Rowling, no matter how much she tweets about it, nor are we interested in investigating Humza Yousaf for describing some white people as being white.”

He said that while officers have an important role in policing genuine hate crime, they must not be drawn into the “petty point scoring” filling much of the debate.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act came into force on April 1, creating a new stirring-up offence for some protected characteristics.

These characteristics include age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity.

More than 7,000 complaints were made online in the first week the Act came into effect and, earlier this month, it emerged the total number of complaints was close to reaching 10,000.

He also told the conference that Police Scotland faced workforce pressures, saying that the force had the lowest officer numbers in 16 years, while at the same time being “pulled in a thousand different directions by demand too often caused by gaps in other public services”.

Mr Hay said this was taking a toll on officers’ wellbeing, pointing to a recent survey that found that 80% of officers had seen their workload increase over the last 12 months, with 71% saying their work-life balance had deteriorated.

He also reflected on the Scottish Government’s previous promise to recruit 1,000 extra officers and the difference they made in targeting street gangs and reducing knife crime.

However, he said “the thousand extra officers are long gone”, pointing out that the workforce has since shrunk to pre-2009 levels – about 16,356 full-time equivalent officers at the end of March – and the lowest since the end of September 2008, according to Government figures.

He said: “The tale of how Scotland beat knife crime is usually told through the lens of the world-renowned violence reduction unit (VRU). Nobody would deny the pioneering nature of the work the VRU undertook and have championed to this day.

“What is often forgotten, however, is the 1,000 additional officers recruited into policing in 2007, all of whom went to frontline community policing.

“What is also often forgotten is the unprecedented targeting of active street gangs for proactive enforcement that went side-by-side with preventative interventions.

“What is forgotten is that everyone caught in possession of a knife would appear in court in custody, where bail would be opposed if they had previous convictions for similar offences.

“The success was achieved by blending progressive, novel approaches of the VRU with conventional, visible, proactive policing measures.”