The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents said falling recorded crime figures belied the true picture of a service struggling to come to terms with online offending.
Writing in The Scotsman today, Gordon Crossan, the organisation’s new president, said Police Scotland did not have the capacity to deal with the changing face of crime.
The national force must make savings totalling £1.1 billion by 2026 but is expected to face a budget shortfall of £21m for the current financial year.
While recorded crime is now at its lowest level since the mid-1970s, senior officers are worried about the level of crime taking place online, much of which goes unreported.
In July, Operation Lattise, which ran for just five weeks, identified more than 500 children as potential victims of online sexual abuse.
Mr Crossan, whose most recent position was head of CID for Police Scotland’s Edinburgh division, said: “Crime types are changing, becoming more complex and harder to get ahead of. Criminals have evolved faster than the police have, exploiting advances in digital technology so that the internet is arguably the biggest enabler of crime in the UK.”
Mr Crossan said it was difficult to know the scale of cyber-crime, but he said indications from England and Wales showed that almost half of all criminal activity had a “cyber element”.
He added: “The reality is there are more demands on policing than ever and we do not have the capacity to deal with the continual growth and diversification of crime, incidents and calls. It’s too simplistic to say crime is down and therefore policing is working.”
Police Scotland said it was working to enhance its understanding of cyber threats.
Assistant Chief Constable Steve Johnson said: “We will thoroughly investigate all complaints about this kind of criminality - be it sharing of illegal images of children, online grooming, radicalisation, orchestrating serious organised crime, fraud or cyber-bullying.
“Technology and the online world are rapidly changing and Police Scotland is dedicated to keeping pace with change to catch those who seek to harm others through cyber and digital means and to respond to emerging threats, while building a secure foundation for the future of cyber-policing.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We fully recognise the danger that cyber-crime poses to individuals and businesses and are supporting Police Scotland to respond effectively to the changing nature of modern crime with more specialists, including experts in cyber-crime and counter-fraud. Last year we launched a new strategy to help individuals and businesses increase their online resilience and enable Scotland to become a world leader in cyber-resilience.”