Public confidence in policing has been hugely damaged by images of officers appearing to abandon a vulnerable woman on a busy road, one of the force's most senior figures has admitted.
Shocking video footage posted online showed police leaving the incapacitated woman lying in a bus lane – just feet from passing traffic – before driving away.
The woman was named as 23-year-old Brigid Mongan, also known as Biddy, who is a member of the Travelling community.
She spoke out last night to say she was angry at being left in such a position by the police. "I could have been killed stone dead," she said.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton told the Belfast Telegraph he was shocked when shown the film, admitting it seriously undermined public confidence in the PSNI.
He personally apologised to Ms Mongan for the police officers' failure to protect her during the St Patrick's Day incident at John Street in Londonderry.
It is understood she was heavily intoxicated and, minutes earlier, had been the victim of an assault by a man.
There has been scathing criticism of the officers involved, and their futures within the force may be in doubt pending a Police Ombudsman investigation.
"It was horrendous, a bad story for policing and for confidence in policing," said Mr Hamilton, who is widely tipped to be the next PSNI Chief Constable replacing Matt Baggott.
"It gives us cause for serious concern, which is why we reported it to the Police Ombudsman. It's the role of the police to keep people safe.
"To have left a woman who appeared to be vulnerable to some degree in a bus lane on a busy afternoon – it doesn't seem to me we were fulfilling our obligation to keep people safe.
"Therefore, it will have a negative impact on confidence in policing. We are not offering excuses. It's a bad day for policing."
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the behaviour of the police officers involved was "totally unacceptable".
It is understood the three officers featured in the video are not due back on duty again until tomorrow.
Sean McCallion (23) filmed the incident and posted it onto his Facebook page. He said minutes prior to the woman being left in the street by police she had been seriously assaulted in an altercation with a man.
Police were initially called to the scene as a result of the assault.
Mr McCallion said police arrested the man and placed him inside their vehicle before taking the woman away from the car and leaving her lying in the bus lane.
"They (police) then just left her lying when they could have put her onto the footpath," he said.
"There was no reason at all for what they did."
Mr McCallion said two passersby then came to the aid of Ms Mongan. Asked if the officers involved faced being dismissed from the PSNI, Mr Hamilton replied: "I don't want the officers tried in newspaper columns or on the airwaves.
"It's difficult to see how a compelling explanation could be offered for leaving someone lying in the street, in a bus lane. Nor do I want to jump to any conclusions and undermine or compromise the Ombudsman's investigation," he said.
STORY SO FAR
The 50-second-long mobile phone footage shows three officers at John Street in Derry on St Patrick's Day. Two escort the stricken woman from the middle of the busy road. But rather than help her to the safety of a footpath just feet away they leave her in a bus lane. All three officers get back into their vehicle and drive off, leaving the woman there.