The sight of police officers patrolling the streets is one which is more common in Hong Kong than in many other parts of the world. Their presence not only serves to combat and deter crime, it also plays a vital role in making our city feel safe. So the concerns expressed from within the force that budgetary cutbacks will lead to a reduction in the number of frontline officers are ones which must be taken seriously. Police Commissioner Tsang Yam-pui was at his most diplomatic yesterday when stating that he accepted the position because of the government's financial woes, but hoped it would improve in the future. Other officers, however, argue that effective law enforcement and, in turn, Hong Kong's image are under threat. The police, like every other branch of the civil service, has had to come to terms with across-the-board spending cuts, pay reductions, and a freeze on recruitment. This is all part of the government's bid to tackle the budget deficit, expected to exceed the official $67.9 billion estimate for the current financial year. The need to cut expenditure and make the civil service more efficient cannot be doubted. But it is important that the retrenchment exercise is carried out sensitively, ensuring sufficient resources remain available where they are needed. When it comes to combating crime, there is a particular need for care. Already striving to comply with general budget cuts of 4.8 per cent over four years beginning in 2002, the force is particularly worried about restrictions on recruitment. After six months of doubt, it finally learned last week it would be exempted from the recruitment freeze, along with three other disciplined services. The move is welcome, but the delay is regrettable. It means new recruits will not be on the beat until the middle of next year. More worrying is the limit imposed on the number recruits. It is not enough to replace those who are leaving, and is expected to leave a shortfall of 150 officers. The police force is not exempt from the general responsibility to operate efficiently. But the cutbacks cannot be allowed to reduce manpower to dangerously low levels. These are worrying times for the force. The crime rate remains low, but is on the rise. An increase of 18 per cent was registered in the first five months of this year. Assaults on officers rose by almost 70 per cent and the police are also more frequently encountering verbal abuse from the public. Overtime bans and cuts in manpower have already hit morale hard. We are lucky to have a well-disciplined, clean and highly visible police force. The contribution it makes to our city's image as a safe place to live, work, and visit cannot be overstated. The budget deficit must be tackled, but not at the expense of our safety.