Cuts to police staffing levels could lead to members of the public dying, the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) has warned.
David Kennedy, general secretary of the SPF, told 1919 Magazine that reducing the number of officers able to respond to emergency calls could result in another incident such as the M9 tragedy.
John Yuill died at the scene and Lamara Bell passed away in hospital following a car crash on the motorway near Stirling in 2015 after officers failed to arrive at the scene until three days later.
A fatal accident inquiry got under way in September.
With police officer numbers already at their lowest level since the creation of Police Scotland, and warnings of a further loss of 600 as a result of budget cuts, it is feared the organisation will not be able to guarantee public safety.
Kennedy said: “The reality is we have a lack of officers.
“All we can do is keep highlighting it and saying to the public that any notion that policing will remain the same and will remain as safe as it has been is just not going to happen.
“People need to realise that, and government needs to realise that.
“We might see more M9 cases appearing where people actually die because that’s the harsh reality if there are not enough police officers to get to calls that they are meant to attend.
“People may die.”
Upon the merging of the legacy forces in 2013, there were 17,324 officers in post (Q2, 2013), but since the middle of 2021 there has been a reduction of more than 600.
It has recently emerged that growing financial pressures on Police Scotland mean the force is looking to cut a further 600 officers and 200 staff in the new year, as well as exploring the closure of 30 police stations and putting a halt to probationer recruitment.
And it was revealed last month that some minor crimes will no longer be investigated as part of a project being piloted in the north east of Scotland to give officers more time to focus on responding to emergencies.
Kennedy said the increasing pressure on resources is seeing probationers go out onto the streets with other probationers instead of more senior officers.
The SNP originally set a policy of committing to a minimum of 17,234 officers, which then became Police Scotland’s chosen benchmark. The 2023/24 figure was 16,600.
“The minimum officer numbers were 17,234 and we’re already 600 less than that,” Kennedy said.
“We are getting told that probationers are going out with probationers at the moment which is totally unacceptable. It’s happening all over the country. In the more urban areas, it’s probably happening more than often.”
He added: “It has a massive impact on cops because they just want to do their job and they will try their utmost to do their job but they’re at the point now where they’re so overstretched they can’t do their job.
“We’ve tried to tell officers they need to try and do the job that they have to do but what happens when you try to take on too much, that’s when mistakes get made.
“It’s bleak. If the Scottish Government properly funded the police service then it wouldn’t be bleak, but they are choosing not to.”
The Scottish Conservatives accused ministers of ignoring repeated warnings from senior figures within Police Scotland.
Russell Findlay, the party’s shadow justice secretary, said: “SNP ministers have arrogantly ignored repeated and explicit public statements from Police Scotland’s most senior figures about the devastating impact of their decisions.
“But Humza Yousaf surely cannot ignore this stark life-or-death warning from rank-and-file officers who are paying the price of severe and sustained SNP cuts.
“The First Minister needs to start listening and ensure that the national force is given the required resources to keep people safe. He should start by agreeing to the Scottish Conservative commitment to hire 1,000 extra officers.”
Scottish Labour MSP Katy Clark said: “This stark warning from the Scottish Police Federation lays bare the true price of SNP incompetence.
“Police officers are a key part of keeping our communities safe, but under the SNP this has become harder and harder for them to do.
“Police have seen their budgets slashed, their staff numbers plummet, and even the proposed closure of local police stations.
“The SNP need to recognise we face a crisis in policing if they proceed with their plan and must provide the resources to support the police in the work we need them to do.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Police officers perform an essential role keeping Scotland’s communities safe which is why the Scottish Government is investing £1.45bn in policing in 2023/24, despite difficult financial circumstances caused by UK Government austerity.
“There are over 350 more officers than in 2007 and around 1,480 new recruits have joined Police Scotland in the last 18 months.
“Scotland also continues to have more police officers per capita than England and Wales.”
The spokesperson added that the government’s “sympathies remain with the families affected” by the M9 incident, but that it would be “inappropriate” to comment any further while a fatal accident inquiry into the crash is currently taking place.
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