THE Scots police force watchdog has called for a shake-up on how staffing is managed as officer numbers dropped to its lowest level for 14 years - raising concerns over a crisis in the fight against crime.

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

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.

It comes as police service inspectors called for action after their report revealed police divisions reported "serious issues" in orchestrating deployment of officers because of issues such as delays in filling vacancies and secondments.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS)  which reports to ministers says more progress could be made for roles to be filled by police staff, thus freeing officers for operational duties.

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.

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.

Ayrshire’s top police officer Chief Superintendent Faroque Hussain has said that seven of the division’s ten frontline inspectors are taking early retirement after the pension rule changes.

When the single police service was created in 2013, the amalgamation of the eight police organisations provided a total of not less than 17,234 police officers within Scotland.

This number had been achieved following the election of the SNP government in 2007, when a manifesto pledge had increased officer numbers by over 1,000.

Then SNP leader Alex Salmond promised to maintain the extra police number in the 2011 election.

Since inception, Police Scotland was required to maintain this number but after the 2016 Scottish Parliament election it was agreed that numbers could fall below 17,234.

Scottish Conservative shadow cabinet secretary for justice Jamie Greene MSP, 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 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."

It comes as an improved 3.4% pay rise offered to Scotland's police officers has been rejected. Scottish Police Federation members have withdrawn "all goodwill" as a result of the dispute which the union said would be escalated without an improved offer by August 5.

And Mr Green said relations with ministers and police officers were "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".

He added: “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.”

It comes as a report by HMICS discovered concerns of officer imbalances between divisions and that senior officers were "frustrated" at the lack of movement in "addressing an accepted issue".

HeraldScotland:

There were perceptions of "spare capacity" in certain police divisions and an "imbalance in resourcing" across the three regions - North, East and West.

The inspectorate considered that while the expectation that Police Scotland's Strategic Workforce Planning (SWP) would ‘fix’ the issues was "unrealistic" it was clear the strategy needed to address them.

The report said that Scottish Police Authority board members have "consistently highlighted a lack of clarity" ont he acitons to be taken by Police Soctlnad to address workforce issues identified.

And it considered that the current SWP "does not present nor link to a clear implementation approach".

It found that current reporting to the SPA does not provide "adequate evidence of progress against a roadmap of planned workforce change".

The inspectorate said the force needed to refresh its approach and provide an "increasingly credible system of planning".

HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland, Craig Naylor, said: “Since inception, Police Scotland has been required to maintain this number. HMICS has long maintained it is not supported by evidence. Scotland may need more, or fewer, police officers or, indeed, a different workforce split between warranted and non-warranted officers.

“The commitment to maintain 17234 is a blunt instrument and, given the workforce makes up around 86% of the policing budget, effective workforce planning should replace it to allow the service to balance resource levels against the budget available.”

To facilitate this, Mr Naylor urged the service to refresh its approach and come up with a credible method of planning to ensure it can demonstrate a valid way to provide effective and adaptable policing services in a sustainable way.

“To meet the demands and threats facing a changing Scotland, the service needs to focus on reshaping the workforce to have the right people, in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills to effectively and efficiently deal with demand for services within the financial settlement that is available,” he said.

“Effective strategic workforce planning will allow Police Scotland to deliver a policing service within a defined budget, prioritise resources to meet current and predicted service demand and expectations and address a level of ad hoc pressure.

“It is a difficult task, requiring strong leadership and prioritisation to ensure clear decision making on the resources and skills required for the future and a plan to achieve it. Hard choices have to be made and carefully managed to ensure public confidence in policing is not impacted.”

The inspectorate said that while there was much to commend in the existing SWP, which has been in place since January, 2021, but there was limited evidence found by inspectors to suggest it effectively supports the achievement of policing strategy and objectives, nor ensures there is sufficient capacity and skills in place to deliver them.

It notes there has been limited progress in terms of delivering the SWP as yet and the inspectorate said Police Scotland needs to "adapt its approach and take a wider view of managing demand for its services and prioritising the service which it can provide".

The SWP referenced a variety of different programmes and projects, all of which have workforce implications, but the inspectorate said there was no analysis of their combined impact on the workforce, expected requirements or outcomes. Similarly the SWP does not address the full impact of working with partners.

“We advise that Police Scotland should focus on the development by next spring of a strategic assessment of the workforce and a refreshed delivery plan to address these gaps. In addition, it should consider how to deliver the next version of the SWP in April 2024,” said Mr Naylor.”

Sir Iain Livingstone, Police Scotland’s chief constable, 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.

“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 £200m of annual savings compared to legacy arrangements.

“I am grateful to Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary for his report, which contributes to our focus on workforce planning while also underlining the complexity of the issue for policing and other sectors.”

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.”