The PSNI's handling of the arrest and subsequent 'de-arrest' of the owner of the Cookstown hotel at the centre of an investigation into the deaths of three teenagers has been branded a "blunder of the highest degree".
SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan spoke out after a senior police officer yesterday defended the PSNI over the arrest of hotel proprietor Mickey McElhatton (52) on Wednesday on suspicion of drug dealing.
Two hours after the media was notified of the arrest, police revealed Mr McElhatton had been "de-arrested".
Fast-track forensic tests had shown that a white powder officers seized from Mr McElhatton's home in Moneymore was actually an "innocent substance".
The hotel owner said that the PSNI was trying to "blacken" his name, and police have refused to apologise.
Mr McElhatton was released yesterday on bail following his arrest four days ago on suspicion of manslaughter in connection with the deaths of 17-year-olds Lauren Bullock and Morgan Barnard and Connor Currie (16).
The teenagers were killed during a crush as they queued outside the Greenvale Hotel to attend a St Patrick's night disco on Sunday.
Despite calls from some politicians for the PSNI to apologise to Mr McElhatton, Chief Superintendent Raymond Murray said he would not say sorry.
"No, I'm not going to apologise. Everything that happened in relation to that arrest and seizure is what we would normally do," he explained.
"If you start at the point where you know the end result and look back, it's actually not a very helpful place to start.
"You have to start looking through the eyes of the officer at the front end, on the ground, who made the discovery."
"I have seen images of the discovery and we're talking about - white powder, in an unmarked, unbranded, clear plastic bag.
"Around that are a number of individual tinfoil pieces which are scrunched up and look like wraps. So the police officer sees that - and that is the threshold in law, and we don't have the luxury of time - and reasonably suspects that this is drugs and makes a seizure.
"The person is then arrested on drugs (charges), and that provides them with their rights, protections and a solicitor."
Chief Superintendent Murray stressed that the nature of the substance had yet to be determined but admitted forensic analysis had confirmed it was not a controlled one.
Mr McElhatton previously said the powdery substance was taken from the laundry room at his home, leading to speculation that the PSNI had seized washing powder.
But Mr Murray said: "How it was found and where it was located certainly didn't lend itself to being just a household agent."
Mr Murray also insisted the investigation was not about "blackening" people's names.
He emphasised the fact that officers moved "quickly" after the forensic results came in, demonstrating the PSNI's transparency in action.
Mr Murray said if police had delayed sending out the initial media update on the seizure and arrest, officers would have been facing questions on why they were holding back information.
"Police on the ground will never have that luxury of being able to work in hindsight. They have to work with what they reasonably and in good faith suspect at the time," he insisted.
"Do I want anybody to be inconvenienced? Do I want anybody to feel distressed? Of course I don't. But just because situations are uncomfortable doesn't mean in fact that they are wrong."
However, Mr McCrossan said the PSNI should have waited for forensic results to come in before making the drugs arrest.
"The actions by the PSNI over this arrest and subsequent de-arrest have done nothing but compound the hurt faced by the families of the victims. It was a blunder in the highest degree," he stressed.
"Rather than rushing to make unsubstantiated statements to the Press, the PSNI should have confirmed that their evidence was correct beforehand."
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long questioned why the arrest had been announced before forensic tests had established what the seized substance actually was.
"Surely the issue isn't that police investigated what those items were - they had to do that - but briefing to the Press and public about the arrest on suspected drugs charges prior to confirmation of the nature of substance?" she asked.
"It seemed premature. Why not await results?
"I genuinely think that was the error - and (it) does deserves an apology."