The SNP dropped its pledge to maintain an extra 1,000 officers from its Holyrood manifesto earlier this year.
But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week said she expected Police Scotland to maintain numbers for the current financial year. The force is facing mounting financial pressures and is heading for a £21 million “overspend” on its £1.1 billion revenue budget for 2016-17.
Senior officers have called for more flexibilty on officer numbers to allow the force to better manage its budget.
Conservatives yesterday called on the SNP to set out how Police Scotland would “cope” with reductions in frontline staff.
It followed publication of a parliamentary question in which justice minister Michael Matheson said no conclusions had been reached on the shape and size of the force.
He said: “The Scottish Government budget for 2016-17 made a commitment to retain police officer numbers at 1,000 higher than in 2007 while working with the Scottish Police Authority to consider the implications of changing demands.
“That work is currently on-going and no conclusions have been reached on implications for the future shape and size of the police workforce.”
Mr Matheson said the Scottish Government was committed to ensuring the police have more specialists to tackle growing areas of criminality such as cybercrime and fraud.
He added: “We are also committed to protecting the police revenue budget in real terms for the entirety of this parliament – delivering an additional £100m of investment by 2020-21.”
Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “This is the strongest hint yet that the SNP is going to drop its commitment to 1,000 extra police officers.
“It’s a commitment ministers have repeatedly referred to over the last decade as a sign the Scottish Government is serious about policing. Now they have to explain, if this level is to be reduced, what plan is in its place to ensure public safety.
“How will a reduced number of officers cope with the increasing pressure Police Scotland seems to be under?”
Mr Lamont said the SNP had to explain its position or public confidence in the force would “deteriorate further”.
The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) has tasked Deloitte with reviewing the future of the police force.
Figures released earlier this month showed officer numbers had fallen to their lowest level since 2010.
Speaking at a meeting of the SPA this week, Deputy Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said Police Scotland had no plans to cut officer numbers.
He said: “There’s been a suggestion Police Scotland is not recruiting – I’d like to make it clear that is not the case. We’ve got 120 new officers starting in September.”
Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, said the police force could not continue to operate with a cut to officer numbers.
He said: “The thing we keep talking about is capacity. Police officers are working harder than ever before; longer hours than ever before and are dealing with more demand than ever before.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are committed to protecting the police resource budget in real terms in every year of this parliament, delivering a boost of £100m by 2021.”
“We have also provided an additional £55m of reform funding in 2016-17.
“ While no conclusions have been reached on the future shape and size of its workforce, we have been clear that resources in areas such as cyber-crime and counter-fraud will need to increase to ensure the service can continue to help keep the public safe.”