HONG KONG - Hong Kong's police force have long prided themselves as being "Asia's finest".
But their hard-won reputation for honest and impartial policing is at risk from accusations of double standards and brutality following violent clashes with pro-democracy protesters, lawmakers and analysts say.
Video footage showing plainclothes officers beating a handcuffed protester as he lay on the ground created shockwaves Wednesday, just over a fortnight after riot officers fired teargas for the first time in years at crowds of largely peaceful demonstrators.
Protesters have also accused police of standing by during repeated attacks by pro-government thugs while using what what they describe as disproportionate violence against their ranks in a series of confrontations in recent days.
"Trust between police and protesters, which was repaired after the use of teargas, is gone now," Surya Deva, a law professor at City University of Hong Kong told AFP.
"The root cause of the violence is the government's use of police force to deal with a political problem."
The city's police force was created in 1844 after the British took control of the territory from China three years earlier. By the 1960s it was notorious for accepting bribes and even colluding with the city's triad gangs.
Its image was gradually cleaned up following the creation of the the city's anti-corruption watchdog in 1974 which brought some of the most venal officers to book and pushed others into retirement.
Hong Kong's officers have since been lauded for their efficiency and honesty while many of their counterparts across Asia have earned reputations for brutality and graft.
The city remains a remarkably safe place to live with low levels of theft and violent crime, despite huge inequalities.
There were just 8.6 robberies per 100,000 citizens in 2012, compared to 243.7 for New York and 789.8 for Paris according to government statistics.
But critics say the force's recent handling of ongoing democracy protests risks fatally undermining the good work done over recent years.
"We have to acknowledge that Hong Kong has always been seen as one of the safest and most secure large cities in the world. But it boils down to trust. If you don't trust the police force, more disturbances will flourish," Claudia Mo, a lawmaker from the pro-democracy Civic Party, told AFP.
It was a Civic Party member, social worker Ken Tsang, who was beaten by police in the video.