The national force has published a vision of what policing will look like in 2026, including a greater use of civilian specialists to tackle the growing threat of cyber crime.
The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) said officer numbers would be kept at their current level for 2017/18 before a slowing in recruitment, leading to an overall reduction of 400 officers by the end of 2020.
A total of 300 officers currently in back office roles such as HR and finance will be released back into frontline duties, while 170 civilian specialists will be recruited.
Chief Constable Phil Gormley said his force was currently being “constrained” by budget challenges and had to “transform” to meet both those and the crime threats of the future.
He said: “The year-to-year imperative to balance the books now that the initial savings have been harvested, risks becoming a primary driver of activity rather than the quality of the service we deliver.
“Officer numbers have been at historic highs but some of them are being used to fill corporate roles, not community ones. It is becoming clear that a narrow assessment of success predicated simply on crime figures, officer numbers and cost savings no longer represent a true test of an effective police service capable of meeting the challenges of the future.”
The most recent figures published earlier this month show there were 17,256 full-time equivalent police officers in Scotland on 31 December.
A long-standing SNP commitment to maintain officer numbers at 1,000 above 2007 levels was quietly dropped from the party’s last manifesto, but the Scottish Government yesterday said it expected to see numbers remaining “significantly above” those it inherited a decade ago.
The draft strategy document, for which a public consultation is now under way, also highlights an increasing reliance on technology, including the use of body-worn cameras, the reporting of crime through an “online self-service portal” and the use of video calls with some victims of crime instead of face-to-face meetings.
Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, said much of the report was “aspirational” rather than realistic, but he welcomed attempts to move officers back to frontline duties and away from corporate roles.
Formed in 2013 through the merger of the country’s eight regional forces, Police Scotland is required to make cumulative savings totalling £1.1 billion by 2026.
Last month Audit Scotland highlighted “weak financial leadership” in both Police Scotland and the SPA and predicted a £200 million funding gap by 2020/21.
Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Douglas Ross said: “It’s absolutely imperative these planned changes do not deplete the frontline of policing in Scotland. The SNP created the single force on the basis it would save money, be more efficient and ensure more time could be spent fighting crime. Instead, four years in, there’s a black hole of tens of millions of pounds, officer numbers are to be reduced and bureaucracy is as much an issue as ever.”