The number of police in Scotland has reached its lowest level for 14 years, figures showed – with almost 700 officers having quit the force in the last year alone.

Police Scotland had 16,610 full time equivalent (FTE) officers in its ranks at the end of June 2022 – the lowest number since the creation of the single national police force.

There were 16,610 full time equivalent (FTE) officers in place in June a drop of 679 in a year.

In the last three months alone, the number has fallen by 195 FTE officers – with the overall total now at the lowest it has been since the end of September 2008.

There are concerns that hundreds more of Scotland’s most senior police officers are to quit this year, leading to fears that the exodus will severely hamper public safety.

Police Scotland has said that 850 of its most experienced officers will retire, including those in vital roles such as the heads of major crimes, criminal justice and public protection.

It comes as a combination of new pension arrangements and long-serving officers delaying their retirement to assist during the Covid pandemic means that retirement rates are estimataed to be 70 per cent higher than normal.

Scottish Police Authority (SPA) documents reveal 122 officers were due to hit the point of retirement between January and March this year alone.

It is also understood that around one in ten were  considering leaving the force after the introduction in April of pension arrangements that would let officers retire five years early.

HeraldScotland: Police Scotland officers in Edinburgh

About 1,800 officers have asked about the new terms – known as the McCloud remedy – which allow over-50s to retire after 25 years’ service without a financial penalty.  They are also able to take a larger proportion of their pensions as a tax free lump sum.

The Tories said the latest figures showed the SNP had “created a crisis in policing”.

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Jamie Greene said: “This exodus of officers from our police force should be a huge wake-up call for the SNP.

“These latest figures show a drop of more than 600 officers in less than a year, highlighting that policing is no longer an SNP Government priority – as the chief constable of Police Scotland has said himself.”

Mr Greene continued: “What’s worse, relations between police officers and the SNP Government are at rock bottom due to derisory pay offers which have led the police to take industrial action despite their limited legal powers to do so.

“The SNP have further insulted the police by failing to deliver on their previous promises about protecting police funding and officer numbers, and it is public safety that will suffer as a result.

“The SNP have created a crisis in policing – they need to fix this mess or risk crime rates spiralling out of control.”

The SNP came to power in Scotland in 2007 with a pledge to increase the number of officers by 1,000 – taking the total number of police from 16,265 FTE officers at the end of June that year to 17,278 FTE by the end of June 2009.

Officer numbers then peaked at 17,496 at the end of March 2013, and while they have fluctuated after that, they remained above 17,000 until the end of last year.

At the end of December 2021, the figures showed 17,117 FTE officers among Police Scotland’s ranks, with this then falling to 16,805 FTE at the end of March this year, before the latest decrease.

The latest figures on officer numbers come after data released under Freedom of Information revealed that 763 Scottish police officers plan to retire this year, well above the average of 584 retirals recorded over each year for the last five years.

Police Scotland recently launched a recruitment campaign, with Chief Constable Sir Iain Livingstone saying he wants to “encourage everybody to consider a career in policing”.

Commenting on the latest figures, Sir Iain said: “Officer numbers are lower as a result of restricted recruitment because of Covid, the Cop26 climate change summit, and increased retirals resulting from changes to pension arrangements.

“We are recruiting and I welcomed 300 new probationary constables last week.”

But he also said: “I have been clear the funding arrangements set out in the Scottish Government’s spending review, if progressed, will mean difficult decisions for policing in Scotland – for example, a far smaller workforce.

“Workforce planning can assist in understanding how to best meet the increasingly complex policing needs of our communities.

“But this will be a challenge, particularly as policing in Scotland already delivers around £200 million of annual savings compared to legacy arrangements.”

Justice secretary Keith Brown said: “National police numbers remain higher than at any time during the previous administration. Our officer numbers are also favourable relative to elsewhere in the UK – with around 31 officers per 10,000 population in Scotland compared to around 24 in England and Wales as at March 2022. 

“Officer numbers continue to reflect the impact of COP26 and Covid restrictions, which reduced capacity to train new recruits at the Scottish Police College. This is combined with the impact of recent pension changes which I know Police Scotland is alert to and managing, and there has been a decrease in officers numbers over the quarter to 30 June.

“I welcome the fact around 300 new police officers took the oath of office in April and around a further 300 last week – a vocational choice no doubt influenced by the basic starting salary for a constable in Scotland – which is currently approximately five thousand pounds more than that paid to equivalent officers in England and Wales.

“We will continue to support the force to deliver sustainable excellence by investing over £1.3bn in policing in each of the next four years.”